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A Serious Work From a Sly Wit

Peter Schickele sets aside his comedic alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach, and composes a concerto in honor of FDR.

November 05, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's not easy being funny all the time. Just ask Peter Schickele, who has been busy "discovering" the musical malapropisms of P.D.Q. Bach for 41 years now and counting. He is just coming out of a 10-year hold on touring the elaborate musical parody shows devoted to the skewed inspirations of "the last and least of the Bachs," saving his P.D.Q. efforts for an annual Christmas bash at Carnegie Hall, and recordings that gave him a lock on the best comedy album Grammy in the early 1990s.

"It became a little bit of an albatross around my neck," Schickele says by phone from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. "There was so much dependent on me in those shows. I was just feeling like I needed a break."

He used that break to develop a radio program called "Schickele Mix," now on hiatus while Public Radio International seeks new funding for it, and to focus his compositional energies on the serious music he writes under his own name. Serious, of course, is probably never the best adjective for Schickele, but his latest piece is at least in part an elegy: Cello Concerto ("In Memoriam FDR"). It receives its world premiere Saturday from guest soloist Paul Tobias and the Pasadena Symphony under music director Jorge Mester.

"The concerto was commissioned by Paul Tobias with money from the foundation set up by Harry Offenhartz to commission works of art about significant people and periods in American history," Schickele says. "Offenhartz, who died last year, was in FDR's administration, and I remembered that my father, who was an agricultural economist, worked in Washington, D.C., and that we were living there when FDR died in 1945.

"That made a big impression on me. The whole family went down to see the funeral procession. I was about 10 years old then, and that was the first time I had ever seen grown-ups cry in public."

The first movement of the new concerto, then, is a cortege, though "not too funereal," Schickele warns, "FDR was a very positive man." Otherwise, there is no attempt to describe the president or historical events in the work, and there is no narration, as in Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," for example.

But Roosevelt did like popular music, and there are brief references to that throughout the concerto. And to music that the ever-eclectic Schickele likes as well. The second movement is worked up over a "ground bass," a repeating bass line that serves as the foundation for a series of variations. But in the central section, there is "some real cowboy music like in the old westerns, bump-a-dee-dee, bump-a-dee-dee," Schickele sings, "sort of a lighthearted little trio."

The third movement is called "Song Set," and it features folk songs such as "Tom Dooley," "Ruby" and "Henry Martin." "One of the things I associate with FDR was trying to do something about poverty in Appalachia. I've always had an affinity for Appalachian folk music. This is a lively movement, the most virtuosic."

The final movement, "Eulogy and Cortege," begins with a brief cadenza for the soloist, and then moves into another slow procession. "There is quite a gamut in this concerto," Schickele acknowledges. "It is serious, even somber, but there are also light and crazy things. That's just my personality."

Demand for that distinctive Schickele mix is booming. His recent compositions include "New Goldberg Variations" for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, a couple of string quartets, a Second Piano Quintet, lots of songs, a Symphony No. 1, premiered by the National Symphony and taken up by orchestras around the country, including the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. His second symphony is due for a June premiere by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the composer is finding himself way behind on commissions.

So much so, that Mester got the final version of the score for the new cello concerto, originally due last year, less than two weeks ago. Fortunately, Mester has always been a quick study and as omnivorous in his musical appetite as Schickele.

"You know, I was thinking about it the other day, and I realized that in the past two years I have conducted about 185 different works," Mester says. "That keeps the brain working! I just finished doing seven "Butterflies" at [New York] City Opera, then opened the Pasadena Symphony season with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4. Now this new concerto--that is something to be happy about, to have that kind of menu."

Mester is also a natural choice to lead Schickele's music. They go back to student days together at Juilliard, where Mester led performances of pieces by fellow students such as Schickele and Philip Glass, whose Concerto for Two Timpani shows up in its West Coast premiere on the Pasadena Symphony season finale in May. Mester remembers well the first P.D.Q. Bach show, at the Aspen Music Festival in 1959--he conducted the production in its first years.

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