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Monday, January 04, 2016


THE MUSIC OF PDQ BACH RETURNED, with orchestra, to a New York concert hall just after Christmas for two performances; I attended the first of them and, as expected, it was a joyful and nostalgic event.

Photo by Peter Schaaf
Although usually scrupulous in his writing, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross previewed the concerts with the assertion that Prof. Peter Schickele would be making his dilatory entrance “swinging from a rope.” This is a lesson in the power of tradition. Prof. Schickele has made many memorable entrances over the years. He has raced down an aisle and belly-flopped on the stage; he has been discovered asleep behind the onstage podium; he has even strolled in on the arm of a pneumatic blonde who giggled at each mention of the word “organ” until she was hurried offstage. The only rope-based entrance I’ve seen involved a knotted length dropped from a balcony, down which the Professor descended.

But legend quickly dominates significant events. We who grew up attending the Christmastime PDQ Bach concerts have described them enthusiastically enough over the years to romanticize that entrance into the full Errol Flynn: thus Mr. Ross’s understandable assertion.

Prof. Schickele, now 80, prefers not to trust his unsteady legs while performing, and so made his entrance in a wheelchair. It got a laugh. And he was on time, too, so that he could receive an award from the American Musicological Junta, a group that has supported the world of PDQ Bach over the years with neither web presence or phone number to sully the purity of its mission.

Traditionalists were pleased to note that latecomers weren’t spared the wrath of stage manager William Walters, and the Professor’s remarks were as witty and pun-filled as ever. For me, these concerts have served as an antidote to a year of classical music. Don’t get me wrong: live performances are vital to my well-being, but there results an accumulated stuffiness that a PDQ Bach concert merrily lampoons.

Take the centerpiece of this recent one: a performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, one of the best-known of the warhorses, and one which easily summons a highly emotional response from its hearers. Beethoven knew what he was doing. Or did he?

What about the oboe at the beginning of the recapitulation? “He’s playing a cadenza!” the Professor declares. “He must be out of his mind! He thinks it’s an oboe concerto!” Literally making sport of the music, Prof. Schickele and WQXR announcer Elliott Forrest provided play-by-play (and player-by-player) commentary on the piece, a routine that dates back at least to 1967 (on the album “Report from Hoople: PDQ Bach on the Air”) and remains one of Prof. Schickele’s most beloved musical sendups. With Mr. Walters as referee, unafraid to send players or conductor to the onstage penalty box, and a phalanx of comely cheerleaders to encourage us, it’s a timeless reminder of what’s missing from most classical concertgoing.

The venue, Manhattan’s Town Hall, was the scene of the first public PDQ Bach concert a half-century ago. Conductor Jorge Mester led the orchestra then and has done so many times over the intervening years, so it was a treat to see him on the podium again. Although the personnel of the New York Pick-Up Ensemble changes over the years, it doesn’t change much. This has long been a highly coveted gig.

The program opened with PDQ Bach’s “Perückenstück” (“Hairpiece”) for soprano and orchestra, the only surviving vocal work from the composer’s opera “The Civilian Barber.” It’s a piece that presaged the introspective extended aria in which Mozart’s characters were inclined to indulge, although this one features far more snark, nicely rendered by off-coloratura soprano soloist Michèle Eaton, who understands the interpretive nuance a work like this demands.

As is too often the case with the works of this son of a Bach, the ensemble included a few unusual instruments. Michael Powell played the Polizeiposaune, a trombone of even more indeterminate pitch than usual thanks to its added siren, and the orchestra’s entire flute section was vacated so that Susan Palma and Diva Goodfriend-Koven could work the Pumpenflöte, an instrument that obviates the need for embouchure (and, for that matter, lungs) thanks to a strategically installed bicycle pump.

Prof. Schickele himself played the soprano proctophone, a horrifying instrument that one would prefer to remain mute. Each note causes a surgical glove to inflate ... but that’s enough about that.

Challenging as were the additional instruments to blend with the ensemble, they did so far better than the electronics: the only glitch I noticed in the evening was the refusal of a pre-recorded note to coöperate, but it was barely missed.

One of the downsides to working with the music of PDQ Bach, as Prof. Schickele frequently complains, is the tendency for that composer’s lack of originality to infect Schickele’s own works – at least the works that are presented on programs like this. “Uptown Hoedown” is a brief, lively demonstration that all music is one, and a lot of it fits in one piece. How else to explain “Little Brown Jug,” “Voi, che sapete,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” Haydn’s “Surprise” Andante, “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Great Gate of Kiev,” among others, chortling by, often right on top of one another? Beethoven’s Fifth even made a return visit.

Prof. Schickele’s arrangement of “Swing Sweet, Low Chariot” showed us a more direct confluence of melody, as tenor Brian Dougherty sang an affecting “Danny Boy” against the “Chariot” melody, with a string sound so lush that Percy Faith wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Ms. Eaton and Mr. Dougherty were featured in the evening’s finale, excerpts from PDQ Bach’s oratorio “Oedipus Tex.” Unlike Stravinsky’s more lighthearted version of the myth, this one finds the hero in an equally fabled American West, where the action plays out no less credibly. Even without mezzo-soprano and chorus, the work works well, driven by Prof. Schickele’s spirited performance of the title role and his recitative accompaniment on the melodica.

A Kickstarter campaign gave birth to what was supposed to be a single concert, but it proved so popular that a second date was added. And I was especially pleased to see that the sold-out house around me included enthusiasts of all ages. The holiday season was never complete without the annual NYC PDQ Bach concerts; when the tradition ended a decade ago, I took it as a sign that I should grow up, move on, find other traditions. It’s been a struggle. How nice it was to postpone all that for yet another year.

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