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The Green Room

The Pierrot Ensemble: A Vessel for Innovation

Posted: 06/10/24

The Pierrot Ensemble: A Vessel for Innovation

Photo Credit: Aaron Sepsey

By Amanda Stezenski

This season, the GRAMMY-award winning sextet, Eighth Blackbird, returns to our stages for two thrilling performances. Their stellar performance in March 2018 left a lasting impression, and we’re excited to welcome them back. Composed of woodwinds, strings, piano and percussion, this unique ensemble is the epitome of modernist music trends.

Over the past 500 years, the instrumentation of chamber ensembles has evolved significantly. Musical consorts and brass choirs once entertained wealthy Baroque families in the 15th and 16th centuries, while string quartets, piano trios and wind quintets lent themselves to the elegant compositions of the 18th and 19th century classical period. 

Then, in 1912, modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg debuted a revolutionary new sound with “Pierrot lunaire,” featuring flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano along with a narrator. The iconic “Pierrot” (pronounced pee·uh·row) ensemble quickly gained popularity among 20th century composers and fellow modernists for its versatility and sonic possibilities.


Photo of Schoenberg's Pierrot ensemble consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and a narrator.

Pierrot ensemble after the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot lunaire", October 1912. From Left: Karl Essberger (Clarinet), Jakob Malinjak (Violin), Arnold Schoenberg (composer), Albertine Zehme (Narrator), Eduard Steuermann (Piano), Hans Kindler (Cello), Hans W. de Vries (Flute)

Composers like Maurice Ravel and Manuel De Falla, among others, expanded on Schoenberg’s palette by incorporating additional instruments such as viola, harpsichord and additional wind instruments. The Pierrot ensemble has become a standard in contemporary music, with 21st-century composers employing it as a vessel for new music, including UW-Madison’s very own Dr. Laura Schwendinger. Schwendinger’s Pierrot ensemble compositions include:

  • “Fable’ (1992)
  • “Songs of Heaven and Earth’ (1997)
  • “Mise-En-scene” (2011)
  • “Artist's Muse” (2017)

You can listen to Schwendinger’s compositions on Soundcloud.

This season, we, at the Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT), are bringing one of today’s most active Pierrot ensembles to downtown Madison: Eighth Blackbird. This award-winning group features a core Pierrot ensemble—flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello—along with percussion. The sextet has more than two decades of experience “moving music forward” and fully embodies Schoenberg’s revolutionary vision by commissioning and performing cutting-edge works. 

The core sextet members are flutist Lina Andonovska, clarinetist Zachary Good, violinist Maiani da Silva, cellist Ashley Bathgate, pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall.

In addition to its performance on Sept. 26, on Sept. 27, we will have the chance to see Eighth Blackbird and the UW–Madison Wind Ensemble perform “Vital Sines” by Viet Cuong in a Concerto for Sextet and Wind Band, composed for Eighth Blackbird in 2022 and commissioned by the U.S. Navy Band. Cuong (b. 1990) is a prolific, award-winning, young composer known for utilizing the full textural capabilities of any ensemble configuration. Take a listen to his electrifying composition, “Fine Lines” for Pierrot ensemble:

Viet Cuong: Fine Lines

To experience the iconic sound of a Pierrot ensemble for yourself, attend this season’s first Classical Series concert on Sept. 26 in Shannon Hall featuring Eighth Blackbird. Plus, you’re not going to want to miss Viet Cuong’s thrilling work performed by Eighth Blackbird and the UW Wind Ensemble on Sept. 27. You can buy Classical Series and build-your-own subscriptions as well as single tickets now. 


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