Berkshire Theatre Group: Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach go for Baroque


ust as many people reaching a certain stage of life are doing, Peter Schickele is downsizing, and accordingly, so is P.D.Q. Bach, his alter ego and the creative force he long has identified as "the youngest and oddest of the 20-odd children of Johann Sebastian Bach."

"I used to do up to 60 concerts a year," said Schickele in a phone conversation one afternoon last week from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. "I’m 79, and traveling, particularly airborne, is not so much fun any more."

Schickele is responsible for, or as he prefers to describe it, "has uncovered more" than 100 works of P.D.Q. Bach that somehow were lost in the big Baroque shuffle, such masterpieces as "The Abduction of Figaro," "Canine Cantata: Watchet Arf" (S. K9), the cantata "Iphigenia in Brooklyn," and that dramatic oratorio, "Oedipus Tex," in which for the first time we heard the combined voices of what became known as the "O.K. Chorale."

Clearly these works were massive in scale, employing opera companies, in other cases symphony orchestras, filling stages with soloists and massive choral ensembles.

In their new slender and economical configuration, Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach deliver a troupe of four -- a pianist, two vocal soloists and a stage manager, or as Schickele introduces them; Michèle Eaton, off-coloratura soprano; Brian Dougherty, tenor profundo; Margaret Kampmeier, keyboardist, and William Walters, manager of the stage.

And, assures Schickele, manager Walters, rather than being a prompter, becomes an integral part of what will take place at 8 on Saturday evening on the stage of the Colonial Theatre.

Schickele clearly is as enthusiastic as he used to be about such major artistic challenges as the "Concerto for Horn and Hardart" or "Good King Kong Looked Out," when he describes the new repertory that the little ensemble will bring to the Colonial:

He mentioned short pieces performed like rounds to a magnum opus, "The 12 Quite Heavenly Songs."

"This is a song cycle on the signs of the Zodiac," he explained. "The first one is ‘Gemini, The Twins.’ There are two singers; the first singer sings, then the second singer follows a couple of seconds later:

Now Diddle Diddle had a twin named Diddle Doo

And everything that Diddle Did,

Diddle Doo did too.

The Colonial engagement is rather an exclusive one this year for the Schickele / P.D.Q. Bach family, one of only six or seven throughout the year.

One of the most requested numbers off the five decades of P.D.Q. Bach albums is the Beethoven sportscast, a play-by-play account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Schickele portrays a sports announcer: "They’re taking that theme and breaking it up into little pieces," he roars, "and now they’re tossing it around from player to player."

He will not be presenting that piece, but he will do his equally popular signature composition -- settings of famous Shakespeare lines to popular rock ‘n’ roll music -- "a smooth ballad like you might want Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra to sing, ‘To Be or Not To Be, That Is the Question.’ The Three Witches from ‘Macbeth ‘ is an uptempo one, according to Schickele, and another that can be classified as country music, a speech that includes "O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?"

Growing up in Fargo, N.D., Schickele first approached music at the age of eight when told by his parents that he had to take piano lessons for one summer.

"If I didn’t like it, I could quit," he recalled the agreement." He didn’t, and he did, instead acquiring a penchant for musical parody from exposure to Spike Jones, whose band was busily lampooning popular music during the 1940s and ‘50s. When he was 13, Schickele and his brother developed a band dedicated to that sort of cause.

"My first piece was ‘The Shiek of Palamazoo,’ and it was for two clarinets, a violin and a tom-tom, because that was what was there," he said. Later he studied flute in college, Juilliard, where he was a fellow student of Philip Glass whose most famous opera inspired Schickele’s "Einstein on the Fritz."

He continues to compose, more for Peter Schickele, than for P.D.Q. Bach. "I got a commission from a percussion duo that wanted a piece in which the flute was used to hit the percussion." he explained. "The two guys were doing it themselves, and only had to play two [flute] notes, so I figured they could do that."

He’s working on a clarinet quintet for David Shifrin, commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest for its artistic director, the celebrated clarinetist.

And closer to home, he has a commission for a percussion quartet to mark the 100th anniversary of the concert series, The Mavericks, in Woodstock.

And, it seems unlikely that we’ve heard the last from that youngest and oddest of J.S. Bach’s sons.

"P.D.Q Bach is the only dead composer who can still be commissioned," reassured Schickele.


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