Schickele Keeps the 'Serious Fun' Rolling With NSO

Violinist Nurit Bar-Josef played the straight man to Peter Schickele.
Violinist Nurit Bar-Josef played the straight man to Peter Schickele. (By Rosalie O'connor)
By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 12, 2007

In the second of three National Symphony concerts titled "Serious Fun," yesterday's matinee was devoted to America's premier classical-music humorist, Peter Schickele. Humor in classical music is exquisitely hard to do, and only a handful have done it successfully. The bar was set exceedingly high by Mozart in his "Ein Musikalischer Spass," and Schickele has clearly learned from the achievements of his predecessors -- Britain's Hoffung Festival, Spike Jones and, of course, Victor Borge.

What Schickele brings to the table is a much deeper love and understanding of classical music than the others. Via his musical alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach, he doesn't just do gags and riffs on standard repertoire. Rather, he creates his own, richly derivative comic works that have jokes on multiple levels. With a master's degree in composition from Juilliard, an outstanding classical-music radio series, "Schickele Mix," and numerous books and serious compositions in print, his erudition is unforced, natural and encyclopedic.

That, of course, makes his burly, bumbling, disheveled stage persona even more amusing. When he idly starts working on a crossword puzzle from the newspaper while seated at the piano during a long slow section of the music, there is no sense of "theater"; he's simply doing what many of us feel like doing.

The concert began with "Uptown Hoedown," an Ivesian pastiche of humorous juxtapositions that, years ago, he did with more success in "Eine Kleine Nichtmusic." In "Konzertschtick for Two Violins Mit Orchestra," NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef played the Leonid Hambro straight-man role to Schickele's Borge, trying to help him tune his fiddle and setting up his numerous gags with her earnest virtuosity. The "Variations on an Unusually Simple-Minded Theme for Piano and Orchestra" featured the wind section standing up and swinging a la Tommy Dorsey, a policeman stopping the proceedings to give Schickele a ticket for speeding, and an "ending" that refused to end.

The "Fuga Meshuga" for four players required the musicians to stand each time they played the principal subject, which, when the entries started to pile up in a stretto, reminded old-timers of an Ernie Kovacs routine.

The finale was the oratorio "The Seasonings," featuring singers from the Choral Arts Society in bathrobes, hair curlers and baseball caps; hysterical send-up of baroque recitative with a cheesy electric organ; a fugue for orchestra with a 64-bar theme that was mercifully truncated due to a power blackout; and a battery of ridiculous toy wind instruments.

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