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Friday, August 01, 2014

Bach in Your Own Backyard

Musical Sacrifice Dept.: A kid in my Boy Scout troop turned me on to the music of P.D.Q. Bach. So much for that thrifty, clean, and reverent stuff. I attended many a NYC concert featuring Peter Schickele and his notorious discoveries, and have performed a number of P.D.Q. Bach pieces. So it was with great pleasure that I attended and reviewed a recent concert in Pittsfield, Mass., featuring these forces, and if I seem overly familiar with the subject, I’ve interviewed Schickele, reviewed his radio series, and even wrote some pieces about a 1986 appearance in the Albany area.


Peter Schickele
ALTHOUGH THE PROTEAN PETER SCHICKELE has proven himself a success as a composer of an enormously wide variety of music; a songwriter; a performer of great skill who can play piano and bassoon and, when necessary, both at the same time; a conductor; a monologuist who writes and delivers witty material with superb delivery and timing; a musicologist whose radio series Schickele Mix offered a finer musical education than any half-dozen college courses, and the indefatigable discoverer of the music of P.D.Q. Bach, one moment in particular during last Saturday’s concert in Pittsfield showed us what I believe to be his truest self.

It was a birthday ode he wrote to his mother, written when she turned 80 (on the auspicious date of 8/8/88). Because Peter couldn’t travel to the party, he wrote a piece for two voices, recorded one of them, and sent it to his brother, David, who performed the other part alongside the recording. This was recreated for us with Peter on both the recorded and live parts. It was a jazzy and impressively difficult piece requiring split-second timing to make it work. And it worked. And it was marvelous to witness just how cheering what seems to be a throwaway piece can be.

The Christmastime P.D.Q. Bach concerts in Manhattan, which featured full orchestra, went on for nearly 40 years, and I attended an embarrassingly large amount of them. They’re long over and Schickele has been threatening to retire, but he’s back on the road with a pianist and singers and his colorfully jacketed stage manager, William Walters, and the mood at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre was as merry as it was at any of those Carnegie Hall events.

Schickele is nearly 80, and moves slowly enough these days to allow himself a wheelchair as onstage transportation. But he was wheeled by a comely, white-suited nurse whose presence proved fortuitous when it was announced that soprano Michèle Eaton couldn’t make it because she’d driven through a screws-and-nails truck accident on the Mass Pike and had four flats—“Just like Elgar’s first symphony”—and the nurse (who bore an unsurprising resemblance to Ms. Eaton) was able to fill in.

My familiarity with Schickele’s music–and that of P.D.Q. Bach–goes back enough years that I’ve witnessed many premieres, including that of the latter’s “Twelve Quite Heavenly Songs,” in both its chamber and orchestral versions, which also took it from two singers to three. Here we got the three-singer arrangement sung with piano and synth (the excellent Margaret Kampmeier), with orchestral interludes via boombox, adding a fitting urbanity to the proceedings.

There’s a quality to this work that expands on the joyful intimacy of that birthday ode. The “Twelve Quite Heavenly Songs” celebrate signs of the zodiac, but with a sense of vaudeville, with harmonies both lovely (“Pisces,” “Capricorn”) and plangent (“Leo”), with lively wordplay (“Aries,” “Virgo”), jazz (“Taurus”) and a smug nod to the duller aspect of the English folksong tradition (“Sagittarius”). Even the oddball instruments of which Schickele is so fond found their way into “Scorpio.”

As performed by Schickele, Eaton and tenor Brian Dougherty, it was nice to hear that the jokes still work–and they won’t work unless the performance is sung well and with a good sense of comic timing. And dig those scales that Kampmeier had to take at white heat in “Capricorn”!

“Hear Me Through,” which opened the program, dates back to the album P.D.Q. Bach On the Air, and whatever it was that Schickele blew into to accompany Dougherty and Kampmeier paid tribute to the fact that an inventive musician can coax music out of anything.

Even his own head. “Kopfspielen,” as Jean Shepherd termed it when he used his own knuckles, gained a more pleasing sonority with the “schlagenfrappe.” Schickele applied differently tuned pairs of these instruments to his noggin to echo the notes in the song “Little Bunny Hop Hop Hop,” one of two of “Four Folk Song Upsettings” by P.D.Q. Bach. The other, the always-pertinent “Farmer on the Dole,” used the pastaphone as an accompanying instrument. Prof. Schickele has an embouchure that is either very impressive or lamentable, depending upon your taste, although he did note that pastaphone is one of the few instruments that can be eaten.

The program also featured short, effective solo piano works; some of the many canons that Schickele delights in writing, and his beautifully set “Songs from Shakespeare,” which imagines what some of the Bard’s better-known texts would sound like in more loose-limbed settings, and which gave us a taste of Schickele’s own piano-playing prowess as Eaton and Dougherty went to town with the tunes.

While I suspect that we may never again see a podium explode or find bits of musical score-paper raining on us from concert-hall ducts, this was a performance both reassuring in its presentation of both of the represented composers and vital as an alternative to the more self-important displays of what’s supposed to be good music.

Peter Schickele
50 Years of P.D.Q. Bach: A Triumph of Incompetence
Colonial Theatre, July 27

Metroland Magazine, 31 July 2014

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