It is 30 minutes before curtain with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Peter Schickele is in his dressing room, rehearsing lines sotto voce and writing notes.
"As I get older, I have to write these things bigger and bigger," Schickele sighs.
"And your handwriting is getting worse and worse," adds Bill Walters, Schickele's longtime stage manager and straight man.
"That's not possible," Schickele retorts.
The sight is subtly incongruous. The burly, bearded Schickele is clad in tux and work boots, reciting lines such as "How many Californians does it take to play a trio sonata?" in a completely reasonable voice, as if the question might occur to anybody.
"This is ridiculous, why did I write it?" Schickele asks about some of the more unlikely aspects of the "oddest of J.S. Bach's 20-odd children," P.D.Q. Bach, and his implausible life (1807-1742). "Because its true, I'm only reporting," he reassures himself.
Before leaving the dressing room, Schickele examines his appearance closely, setting the red suspenders just so, tugging loose a shirt-tail and fluffing out his hair into a manic mane.
Still backstage, Schickele checks his instruments and props, which range from the tromboon--an instrument he discovered in junior high school by connecting a bassoon mouthpiece to a trombone--to balloons and a table full of breakfast appurtenances.
You might imagine that after more than a quarter-century of performing as the Professor--discoverer of P.D.Q. Bach and crazed head of the music pathology department of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople--Schickele could get into character automatically.
But he has eight completely different, carefully scripted programs he can do with an orchestra, and his calculation of comedic cause and effect is precise, his control over the seemingly spontaneous mayhem strict. To achieve that at the January Philharmonic concert, Schickele surprises everyone at one point by coming offstage unexpectedly. He hurriedly sticks a pin in his shirt, needed to pop a balloon in the finale of one program.
"I forgot the pin!" he exclaims urgently. "The audience can't see me put the pin in."
With Schickele leading them on, even P.D.Q. neophytes in the crowd quickly learn their part, joining the enthusiastic hissing that greets some of his more outrageous puns. "Listen," he tells the crowd sternly, "I can take this a lot longer than you."
Maybe not. Schickele is preparing to cut off the live shows despite a demand for P.D.Q. Bach that has never been higher. Spurred by 26 years of public performances, Schickele--or rather the Professor and P.D.Q. Bach--enjoys a recognition factor that far surpasses many classical music stars who have remained on the narrow path. His first two Telarc CDs won Grammys for best comedy recording and 11 of his older Vanguard albums have been re-released on CD.
"Farewell Concert," trumpet the Pasadena Civic Auditorium's ads for Monday's performance with Jorge Mester and the Pasadena Symphony, the end of a national goodby tour. The claim is no joke--although it is, appropriately, April Fools' Day, of course--but it does require some elaboration.
"I've never called this the end," Schickele, 55, says. "I'm not burning any bridges here. If I start touring again, I'll call it 'The I-Was-Only-Kidding Tour.' "
What Schickele does intend to do is to take an indefinite sabbatical from the road. Since the first public P.D.Q. concert in 1965, the "discovery" and propagation of P.D.Q. Bach's music has become a full-time job, overwhelming many of Schickele's other interests.
"There are things that have come up in the last couple of decades that I haven't been able to pursue," Schickele says. "For example, I was offered the buffo title role in Sousa's "El Capitan" once, but I would have had to block out all that time. Stopping the touring is partly just a matter of wanting to free up time."
To get an idea of what free time might produce from the musical cottage industry that is Peter Schickele, consider what already lies behind P.D.Q. Bach:
Nine film scores, ranging from the acclaimed sci-fi ecological fable "Silent Running" to an animated short of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."
Television scores, including several "Sesame Street" episodes.
Theater scores and songs, ranging from Beaumont and Fletcher's "Knight of the Burning Pestle" to "Oh! Calcutta!"
Arrangements and compositions for the cream of the folk-revival movement, including albums for Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Richard and Mimi Farina and Jeff Monn.
Concerts and recordings with his fusion trio, the Open Window, plus "Good-Time Ticket," an album of his instrumental interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
More than 70 compositions under his own name, including the "American Dreams" Quartet recorded by the Audubon String Quartet on RCA.
The Peter Schickele Rag, his own fanzine to which he contributes a crossword puzzle each issue.