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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Concert Review: The Unquiet Dead

Town Hall witnesses the long-awaited resurrection of P.D.Q. Bach.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Peter Schickele (left) demonstrates Steinway/Everlast's Piano Glove.
Photo from Bucklesweet Media © 2015 Peter Schickele.
Mention the name Peter Schickele in a circle of New York concertgoers and you will be met with a smile, a chuckle, and perhaps a roll of the eyes. (Unless they're young, in which case they'll need an explanation.)  Mr. Schickele, a distinguished teacher and composer based in New York, has spent half a century moonlighting as the misguided musical paleontologist whose lone discovery is the justifiably forgotten output of P.D.Q. Bach, the last and most misbegotten of Johann Sebastian Bach's children.

P.D.Q. Bach's chief claim to fame is the decomposed state of his body of work. Digging through this morass, Mr. Schickele has unearthed pieces like the Schleptet, the oratorio Oedipus Tex and operas like The Civilian Barber (the music of which remains mostly (and thankfully) forgotten) and Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice, a swinging fairy tale that is advertised as "an opera in one unnatural act."

Thanks to a crowd-funding effort and the less than sterling reputation of old P.D.Q., Monday night marked the 50th anniversary of P.D.Q. Bach concerts, and the first concert featuring Mr. Schickele in eight years. The concert, at Town Hall was sold out, with music lovers huddled under that historic venue's awnings in an effort to avoid the hailstorm that hit Times Square within the hour before the concert. Perhaps the heavens themselves remember works like Iphegenia in Brooklyn and were aiming the hailstones in the interest of good taste.

Luckily, the hailstones missed.

The concert opened with Mr. Schickele (who is now 80 and has mobility issues) being wheeled onstage by his prim, starched nurse. In some ways this was a bizarre parallel to James Levine, since the Metropolitan Opera maestro is now also performing in a powered wheelchair. The "nurse" turned out be Michèle Eaton, the evening's  soprano. She was put to the test with the Perückenstück ("Hair Piece") from The Civilian Barber. Accompanied by the polizeiposaunen (police trombone, used to clear the road for parades) and the pumpenflöte (pump flute) Ms. Eaton  warbled in a mix of German and English, performing this nightmarish pastiche aria with panache. On stage right, Mr. Schickele offered stretto accompaniment on the proctophone, an instrument consisting of a mouthpiece and a large rubber surgical glove.

This was followed by "Swing Sweet Low Chariot" with tenoro profundo Brian Dougherty singing "O Danny Boy" against the melodies of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Next up: the "Beethoven Sportscast" with Mr. Schickele and Elliot Forest "calling" a performance of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. The players put numbers on the backs of their evening wear, and stage manager William Walters acted as referee, calling penalties, putting a horn player in the penalty box and adding to the general mayhem and hilarity. Somehow, the conductor and orchestra crossed the end zone and scored on a penalty shot while stealing the first bass player.

After halftime and a break for juice, cookies and domestic wine, the second half opened withMr. Schickele's Uptown Hoedown, a cheerful bastardization of American folk themes, classical melodies and baroque favorites like "Turkey in the Straw." Mr. Schickele's gift for weaving themes together was on full display here, as the New York Pick-Up Ensemble showed why they were selected from the marketplace for working musicians that still exists at the southern end of 14th St.

That Western swing continued with the last work on the program, a set of excerpts from the oratorio Oedipus Tex. Mr. Schickele, Ms. Eaton and Mr. Dougherty performed this tumbleweed-tossed version of the Greek myth about how young Tex falls in love with Billie Joe Casta (Ms. Eaton) and uses her rodeo queen tiara to put out his eyes. Mr. Schickele, with a pair of pop-goggly shades made this a hilarious moment, being the funniest Oedipus since Jeffrey Buchanan in The Band Wagon. It was a rip-roaring ending to a marvelous evening, the triumphant return of a local New York music legend. As the audience stood and clapped in unision for Mr. Schickele to be wheeled out for another round of applause, the truth dawned: P.D.Q. Bach was back. 

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