Matrix:Midland gave a capacity house of ardent fans in the Midland Center for the Arts a hilarious tour de force Friday night, as composer and raconteur Peter Schickele shared an evening of music of his own and by the blithely incompetent P.D.Q. Bach.
It’s hard to believe that the nigh-unto-69-year-old Schickele (he was born the same year as Elvis; go figure) has been “unearthing” these P.D.Q. Bach oddities for 50 years now! Safely ensconced inside his alter ego of Professor Peter Schickele, from the Musical Pathology Department of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, he has for half a century fed a hungry public an uninterrupted feast of albums (spanning vinyl to CD), books, videos, and concerts of the understandably forgotten masterpieces of the last of J.S. Bach’s 20-odd children (also the oddest).
And Friday night’s concert was just another in a series of reminders of why we keep coming back for more. The music (and Schickele) are just too dang funny. We’re happily addicted.
If there is a formula for these “Farces de Schickele,” it is far too varied and multi-layered for it ever to wear thin. Freud said the essence of humor is the unexpected. But even when you feel one of Schickele’s punch lines coming a mile away (and to be fair, that doesn’t happen often), his delivery will still inevitably elicit the giggles.
These “concerts” of his are pure theater. And the hilarity begins even before the lights officially go down. Schickele made one of his patented off-the-wall entrances (this time via wheelchair), and the laughter barely ever subsided for the next two hours.
Analyzing Schickele’s humor takes one down contradictory avenues, as it is at once obvious and subtle, clearly at home with slapstick, sight gags, and physical humor, while also full of cerebral puns and hilarious historical allusions (like to German poets Heine and Schiller, the latter of which acknowledged how much he owed to Joy, his girlfriend; get it?).
His delivery is honed to ginsu sharpness, and he will throw out long-winded jokes and subtle one-liners like candy. If you don’t laugh at one, he’s back immediately with two more at which you are apt to laugh your Heine off.
The first half of the concert comprised all music by P.D.Q. Bach, beginning with three short piano works from the Little Notebook for "Piggy" Bach, which featured (I’m not making this up) nasal obbligato. A collection of German songs about losing love and people (“loss lieder”) was followed by the 18th century avant-garde (“so far ahead of its time that it still sounds wrong”) song Shepherd on the Rocks, with a Twist.
Assisting Schickele throughout the night (in the merriment and the music) were tenor David Dusing and soprano Michele Eaton. In addition to delightful voices and sparkling silliness, both seemed genuinely enthralled by the wit of the master.
After intermission, there were the patented rounds for which both Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach are justly famous, plus a cycle of songs with a more serious bent, which hinted at the true level of compositional gift Schickele seems to try so hard to hide under his silliness.
The whirlwind evening closed in that style with five brief settings of great moments from Shakespeare, set to musical non sequiturs. Macbeth in West Side Story, and his witches as Sons of the Pioneers, coupled with Hamlet a la Satchmo, Juliet as country and western diva, and ending with Julius Caesar mourned in Manhattan Transfer iambic swingtameter.
Only the mind of Peter Schickele could have conceived of that, much less pulled it off. And of course, like all else, it was a minor masterpiece.
When asked if P.D.Q. Bach really existed, Schickele once delivered my favorite one-liner of his of all time: “Truth is truth. You can’t have opinions about truth.” Well, the truth is, this man is a musical and comedic genius, and he is a national treasure. Long may he farce.