Search This Blog

Monday, July 29, 2013

Schickele at Skidmore

 Music for You, PDQ Dept.: In late 2005, I was given the privilege of shadowing Peter Schickele during his residency at Saratoga’s Skidmore College. Here’s a longer version of the piece I wrote about it for Metroland.


ANTHONY HOLLAND IS A COMPOSER and conductor who, as an associate professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, conducts the college’s orchestra and works with students in the music program. “I hoped that Peter Schickele, despite his world-wide fame, would be approachable, friendly and enjoy relating to our students,” he said, commenting on Schickele’s week-long residency at the college. “My expectations were surpassed. He was warm and friendly and very easy to work with.”

Peter Schickele at Skidmore College
3 Nov. 2005 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
That’s a comment echoed by all who commented on the experience. And to have Peter Schickele as an artist in residence was two-for-one deal, given Schickele’s considerable reputation not only as a distinguished composer but also as the tireless promoter of the music of P.D.Q. Bach, music that Schickele has continued to discover – with alarming frequency – for more than 40 years.

The residency ran from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5, and it was natural that the week would culminate in a concert including music from both of Schickele’s worlds, bringing together orchestra and chorus in a wide range of pieces that even included a world premiere.

“We have some kind of residency every year,” says Janet McGhee, who conducts the Skidmore Chorus and the Vocal Chamber Ensemble. “When Peter Schickele’s name was mentioned as a candidate during a faculty meeting last year, I was thrilled. I worked with him during a residency many years ago when I was a junior faculty member at the New England Conservatory, and I knew he’d be terrific.”

Thomas Denny, who chairs the Skidmore music department, is a versatile musicologist whose classes run from Schubert to Duke Ellington, and he was pleased to welcome a composer with similarly versatile credentials. “We put him in contact with students in many settings,” he says, “coaching orchestra and chorus rehearsals of his music, coaching chamber groups playing his music and giving private coachings to composition students about their music. He also visited beginning and advanced classes to talk about the music world, and even spent informal time with the students over meals. We expected that the students would come away energized and informed and entertained by all of this, and the residency lived up to our expectations.”

Schickele sat in on McGhee’s Wednesday choral rehearsal, offering deft, insightful suggestions to the very accomplished singers. Given the high level of humor in many of the pieces, he also made sure the jokes would work. After one of the P.D.Q. Bach songs, for example, he said, “What you did was very musical, but we’re talking gags here.” One of the songs in the Liebeslieder Polkas requires a balloon deployment, for which Schickele offered advice, noting, “They don’t teach this at Juilliard.”

Confirming what Denny observed: “Behind the facade of humor, Schickele was all business when it came to performances of his music. He took the performance standards seriously, and wanted the best performances possible.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach concerts, a phenomenon that became an unexpected success and, he says, freed him from academia. Although he doesn’t spend much time on college campuses, he enjoys a residency like this one, which he finds himself doing more and more.

“I’m very interested in what young composers are doing and who they listen to,” he says. “Working with the composition students, my first reaction was, ‘How should I do this?’ I end up saying things like, ‘You might think about doing this here,’ or ‘I find myself losing interest here.’ One of the most interesting pieces I heard during the week had a long stretch in which there were just two chords on the piano, so I talked about how the piano is not a very expressive instrument and composers typically make up for that with a lot of fast notes or different chords.” He is characteristically modest about the experience: “They may take my advice, they may not.”

Peter Schickele at Skidmore College
3 Nov. 2005 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Students and faculty were clearly in awe of him, filling Filene Recital Hall for each rehearsal and overflowing it for the Saturday concert. “He loves to make people laugh,” says Holland, explaining this phenomenon. “He also loves the blues. These two elements are woven throughout his music and this is how he interacted with people at Skidmore: demonstrating the blues, where blues riffs occurred in his music, why it's there, and how some passages of his music are there just because he ‘loved the way it sounded – it was just too much fun to pass up a chance to put that in there.’ He’s like a kid in a candy shop or an amusement park. It’s all so much great fun – and it's all so very well crafted and cleverly designed.”

Katarzyna Tomecka, a senior who sang in the chorus, enjoyed both the rehearsals and Schickele’s presence in the classes he attended, where she learned about his varied past. “His experiences allowed me to realize how many different things you can do before settling on one life path,” she notes. “He did so many things, like radio shows, and teaching others, and composing music of his own and arranging music. In terms of my own career, it's nice to have met someone who went through the struggles to find himself through music, to prove that it can be done!”

Schickele even waded in on that most difficult of topics – an analysis of humor – with a Thursday lecture titled “What’s So Funny about Music?” He made it clear at the outset that he would be examining music, not lyrics, and (with the help of recorded excerpts and examples he played on the piano) illustrated the talk with music ranging from Bartók and Debussy to Florence Foster Jenkins and Spike Jones.

Jones – the antic bandleader who rocketed to fame in the ’40s with “Der Fuehrer’s Face” – was a vital influence on Schickele’s career. “I was not at all a child prodigy,” he says. “I took piano lessons briefly when I was eight, but I was far more theatrically oriented. I was writing and putting plays when I was ten, but it all started to come together when I heard my first Spike Jones recording – it was in a record store, and the song was ‘Serenade to a Jerk.’ I’d never heard anything like. Shortly after that, I saw the Spike Jones traveling show, and by the time I was 12, all I wanted to do was imitate it. So my brother and I put together a show, complete with bandstands made out of orange crates, and our instrumentation was two clarinets, violin and tom-tom.” Schickele laughs at the recollection. “It’s a great thing that this was before video cameras.”

Thus the theatrical aspect of a P.D.Q. Bach piece. The “Liebeslieder Polkas,” settings of classic verse by the likes of Herrick and Shakespeare, calls for an accompaniment of piano five hands – which sent fifth hand Erich Borden scurrying from one side of the keyboard to the other, sometimes quickly circumnavigating the piano in the process.

That sense of fun informs Schickele’s own pieces, too: an overture titled “One for the Money” gave the orchestra’s percussion section a merry workout, while his “Folk Song Set,” which premiered some revised orchestrations, well served the freewheeling nature of songs like “Darling Corey” and “Old Dan Tucker.”

The enthusiasm of the music clearly infected the performers. Daniel Schwarz is an English major, a senior who has sung in the Skidmore chorus for several semesters. He was thrilled at the idea of working with Schickele. “Both of my parents are big fans of his music, so I’ve been hearing it since I was four,” he says. But even that didn’t prepare him for the variety of music he encountered: “From P.D.Q. Bach to his settings of haiku and poems by E. E. Cummings – it was amazing.”

Although music may not be a profession for Schwarz, he describes the week as a life-changing experience. “I have these incredible memories I’ll be taking away from this. I’ll be telling my children and grandchildren that I actually got to perform Peter Schickele’s music for Peter Schickele.”

Metroland Magazine, 17 November 2005

No comments: