Next Saturday, the Empire State Youth Orchestra gives the regional premiere of a major work that the organization co-commissioned. The Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra was written by Peter Schickele, 82, a long-time resident of Woodstock. The piece is billed under Schickele’s familiar pseudonym, P.D.Q. Bach, described as “the last and least and certainly the oddest” of J.S. Bach’s 20-odd children. The piano soloist will be Jeffrey Biegel, who spearheaded the project.
It was more than 50 years ago that Schickele introduced the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. For many years the latest “discoveries” of long-lost P.D.Q. Bach scores were presented in annual Carnegie Hall concerts. A raft of best-selling recordings are available today on compact disc.
Biegel has been a lifelong fan.
“It’s so much fun. Everybody grew up with him,” says the 56-year-old pianist. “Whatever he did was with the utmost taste to the style of the period. His sense of timing is impeccable. Like when a good stand-up comedian says something at the right moment, it grabs you and you can’t do anything but laugh. He does that in music.”
The humor comes in several forms. First there are titles that spoof masterpieces, such as “Fanfare for the Common Cold,” the opera “Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice,” and the Wild West oratorio “Odeipus Tex,” to name but a few.
In the music itself are playful and ingenious quotations of famous composers and their works. According to Biegel, the new concerto references Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Schubert’s C-Minor Sonata. It also features an inverted version of Paderewski’s Minuet in G. (It has the same rhythms, but when melodies go up in the original, here they go down, and vice versa.)
“Don’t be afraid to laugh. It’s supposed to be funny,” says Biegel, who debuted the concerto last fall with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
On the other hand, Biegel emphasizes respect for the work. He describes the new concerto as “a serious piece that sounds like it could be composed way back when — with a few oddities thrown in.”
Another element of humor you can expect is in the sight gags. Biegel admits that some of these are of his own invention and not in the score. Here’s one example: a fast series of rising notes takes the pianist’s hands to the highest reaches of the keyboard. The momentum is so strong that it pushes his hands off the right side of the keyboard and even causes the pianist to fall off the piano bench. The part about running out of piano keys is Schickele’s. Falling off the bench is Biegel’s.
“There’s a fine line where it’s too much and I’ve always wanted it to be about the music,” explains Biegel.
Early in his career, Biegel met another famed musical humorist, the pianist Victor Borge. Biegel almost became Borge’s sidekick in shows, but Borge feared that the association could hamper Biegel’s career prospects. Biegel went on to have a distinguished career that includes premiering more than a dozen piano concertos by contemporary composers.
Now, with P.D.Q., he gets to be funny.
But it took both patience and persistence to persuade Schickele to write the piece. Biegel first met the composer by chance on the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall during the early ’80s. In 2002, he approached Schickele for a new work, but the composer was too busy. Biegel tried again in 2015. Schickele finally relented saying, “If I don’t do it now, I never will!” According to Biegel, Schickele included on the cover page of the score the inscription: “edited to a fare-thee-well.”
The concert by ESYO will be conducted by Helen Cha-Pyo and also features Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 5 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Tickets are $20. Call (518) 273-0038, or visit: http://www.troymusichall.org.
Guitar weekend at Gardner Farm Inn
“Strumming A to Z” is a weekend of guitar music coming up Nov. 17-19 at Gardner Farm Inn, the bed-and-breakfast on Brunswick Road in Troy. Proprietor John Hughes is turning over the inn’s parlors to producer Liz Friedman, and she’s put together a jampacked lineup of events.
The featured artists for the weekend are guitarist Maria Zemantauski and the Alturas Duo, which consists of Scott Hill, a guitarist, and Carlos Boltes, who performs on both violin and the charango, a stringed folk instrument from Andean culture.
Here’s the schedule in a nutshell: Things start on Friday night with a wine social and an open jam. Most of Saturday is devoted to lessons and master classes. At 4 p.m., there’s a concert at St. Paul’s Church in downtown Troy, which is open to the public with admission of $10. Saturday night, there’s a Spanish-themed dinner and another concert back at the inn.
The organizers invite participants at all skill levels who perform on any plucked string instrument. The musical emphasis will be on flamenco and South American strumming in a friendly and collaborative environment. For more information, click on the special events page at: http://www.gardnerfarminn.com.
Here’s some news for fans of Tessa Lark, the violinist who performed for the Troy Chromatics on Oct. 6. Composer Michael Torke is at work on a concerto to be premiered next season by Lark with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. This is according to Torke’s website, which describes the forthcoming piece as “a bluegrass-newgrass concerto.”
Torke continues to be a presence in the region, and not just with the ASO. In July, he had a debut in the Adirondacks, a commission honoring the centennial of the Lake Placid Sinfonietta.
Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.