It wasn't your ordinary Pasadena Symphony serenade at the Civic Auditorium on Monday. Not exactly.
For one thing, the hall was packed. For another, the instantly ecstatic audience devoted a lot of time to ritual hissing and chanting as well as to honest cheering.
This was a cult event. This was the farewell concert of Prof. Peter Schickele, the august musicolologist from Hoople.
He, in case you've been off the planet for the past quarter-century, happens to be the world's leading authority on, and exponent of, the delirious music attributed to P.D.Q. Bach, the last and oddest of Johann Sebastian's 20 odd children.
Did I say "farewell concert"? Yes I did, and so did the title page of the printed program. Someone even added an exclamation point.
But we don't have to take that too literally. Even now, the good professor promises to keep the faith on behalf of lucky New Yorkers at annual Carnegie Hall celebrations, also on recordings. Schickele has hinted, moreover, at the possibility that P.D.Q. might even take to the road again, some time in the fuzzy future.
The reports of the old master's imminent demise seem a bit exaggerated.
That thought will, no doubt, be reassuring to the devout masses. It also could be a bit unsettling to certain critical fossils who have experienced the brilliant bravura of Schickele's mock-besotted bacchanals thrice too often.
"P.D.Q. Bach was a composer years ahead of his time," the decomposer-in-residence tells his rapt congregation, "but he died not a moment too soon."
A churl might wonder if anyone will say the same of the P.D.Q. tours.
It seems like only yesteryear that Southern California discovered the P.D.Q. phenomenon at Hollywood Bowl. The stooge maestro on that memorable occasion was Jorge Mester, hiding behind the slippery \o7 nom de guerre\f7 of Bruno Pantoffel. Significantly, an unmasked Mester was back for the quasi-valedictory.
In the innocent days of 1966, a pool separated the seats and the stage at the Bowl. That didn't stop Schickele from making his traditional, desperate, delayed entrance from the wrong side of the proscenium. He raced down the aisle, dived into the water, dog-paddled ferociously to the other side, splashed his way to the podium, shook himself like a earnest spaniel and won Los Angeles' collective heart before a tone had sounded.
In another appearance, not long thereafter, Schickele swung to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Tarzan-style, using a rope conveniently stored in the mezzanine. Not even Zubin Mehta, the resident firebrand at the time, commanded that sort of bravado.
Although the flame still flickers, Schickele isn't quite as flamboyant as he used to be. His whiskers have turned Santa Claus white, just like some of his jokes. He still speaks loudly and carries a big shtick. Nevertheless, the illusion of spontaneity is beginning to fade.
At the outset of the Pasadena concert, Bill Waters, the stoic stage manager, began his familiar nervous ritual. He scowled, paced back and forth, consulted his watch, shook his head, pretended that Schickele was once again AWOL. The masses hissed happily as if on cue. Then he turned alarmingly serious.
He introduced a dignitary from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who belatedly awarded the Grammy that had been granted to Schickele in absentia last year. Impeccably attired as usual in rumpled tails (one tail shorter than the other) and clodhoppers, the recipient bounded to the stage and volunteered an almost somber acceptance speech.
He acknowledged the assistance of numerous lofty muses, including Spike Jones. Finally, leaving his shiny statuette on the rostrum, he began his sort-of-farewell concert.
Soon he was busy leaving no musical turn unstoned. Soon the horrified NARAS dignitary stalked back to the rostrum and snatched back the Grammy. It was one of the evening's better gags.
The musical menu before intermission included a snazzy "Fanfare for Fred"; a not-so-grand "Grand Serenade" that offered a predictable collection of unlikely quotations, permutations and combinations; a clumsy "Classical Rap" number, replete with confounding references to distant Manhattan, and the glassy prelude to "Einstein on the Fritz." The last-named, an orgy of Xeroxed arpeggios, contained too many melodic ideas to justify its minimalist pretensions.
After intermission came the delicate "Safe" Sextet, so called because the score was discovered on old pieces of paper that had been wrapped around some jewelry stolen from a hotel safe. The \o7 piece de resistance\f7 took the sprawling form of P.D.Q.'s beloved "1712 Overture," complete with mighty Wurlitzer meanderings by the versatile professor himself and embellished with popping balloons. The ultimate cadence was punctuated by a flashing studio sign that shamelessly, and successfully, elicited "WILD APPLAUSE."
Amiable and ever-authoritative, Schickele served as ribald raconteur, choreographic conductor, pearly pianist and organic organist. Mester did what he could as elegantly inspired second banana.
The deadpan Pasadena symphonians provided virtuosic noodling and doodling on command, splendid sawing and pawing in depth. At one crucial juncture, the entire cello section rose heroically to the challenge of a misplaced Razumovsky march. The aficionados out front, however, seemed most impressed with the interjections of a single flatulent tuba.
\o7 Komm\f7 , Hoffnung.