Sunday, September 9, 2012

33 Variations: Diabelli and Beethoven Explored

33 Variations

by Moises Kaufman

directed by Nick Bowling

Timeline Theatre Company

at Stage 773, 1223 W Belmont, Chicago


As I watched the play this evening I was struck by the fact that the ending to Act I is a fugue for actors. (I failed to pay attention to what the piano was doing during this finale so it may have well been Beethoven’s fugue along with the actors’ fugue.) Musing about things during intermission I focused on the notion that musical composition is generally a motif followed by instances of repetition, sequence and variation based on that idea. The Diabelli waltz actually yielded three (or possibly four, I am depending on external analysis here, not my ears) motifs from which Beethoven constructed the finished set.

On the way home I mused over what the underlying motif of the Kaufman play might be. I walk about a mile and a quarter to get home from Stage 773 or Theater Wit so I had a good deal of time to muse.

Upon arriving home I thumbed through the Timeline program (always an academic work that rivals a thesis!) and sure enough, in “A Note on Structure” on page [unknown but it would probably be 5 if they had numbered their pages] it mentions Kaufman’s intention to write 33 scenes that are variations, one of which is actually a fugue. Kaufman certainly succeeded to my ears, even on first hearing with no advance research or reading. (I try to avoid reading about works I never experienced before just to see what I can get out of the experience without prior bias.)

Timeline misses a huge opportunity here to present the parallels between the classical music forms and the Kaufman piece probably because actors are primarily story-tellers, not practitioners of abstraction the way composers are. The musical devices of repetition, sequence and variation developed because of music’s limited vocabulary; once you establish a modality, key and a melody you’re pretty well locked into a path for at least a short time. Repetition, sequence and variation are just about the only ways you can make a musical piece interesting in the long term. Language, with its nuance and rich repertoire of vocabulary allows for an almost free-wheeling experience that doesn’t depend on structure for interest. In this case, however, I believe that Kaufman has set himself a much sterner task and succeeds brilliantly.

Kaufman does, in fact, have a motif, at least in my eyes. It is “time as a limiting factor.” Everything about the play deals with time. Kaufman repeats this motif endlessly, but he also “sequences” it (musically sequences deal with transpositions of the motif into different keys) by various theatrical devices like switching between current time periods and those of Beethoven’s Vienna or the completely artificial and impossible conversation between Dr. Brandt and Beethoven. He adds variations to his time motif by exploring the different perspectives held by various characters so that while “time” is central to each scene, the ornamentation or exact exposition of the motif may vary.

For Dr. Brandt time was a “killer.” She knew it was her enemy and there was little she could do to defeat it. For Beethoven, he always needed “more time.” Time was outside of his control in-so-far as the variations were concerned; the variations wrote themselves and he just had to wait until all of the secrets were revealed. Schindler and Diabelli were prisoners of capitalist time; both needed more time to meet financial obligations or greater financial resources to meet obligations in the time allotted. Take your pick, the capitalists have always had the same problem with time! For Mike and Clara (the youth element) time had no meaning what-so-ever. This is the typical view of youth; Mike was in a routine career and Clara was busy “experimenting.” Neither felt any urgency to explore life’s options, a viewpoint that would doubtless change as their years accumulate. Finally, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, represents to me almost the Snoopy (in the Charles Schultz sense) of the characters. She lives for today; she has experienced a loss similar to the situation of Dr. Brandt; she takes the philosophical and yet humanist approach that one should reap as much in the present as one can. Contrary to one reviewer (who must have some sort of hang-ups about sex) I found that Dr. Ladenburger’s advocacy of engaging a “masseur” for Dr. Brandt only underscored her convictions that “the time is the present; carpe diem!”

"Wait until the evening before the opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or for the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty."

—Gioachino Rossini

So Kaufman takes the motif of time and repeats it, sequences it and embellishes (varies) it to arrive at this remarkable piece of theater that crosses the line between classical music and contemporary story-telling. What a happy experiment! We probably won’t see a lot of pieces for theater written this way, but who cares? Much of art is “one-off,” and we’re grateful that we have at least the single example for our enjoyment and enrichment.

One final word: Beethoven struggled with the closing of the variations. What did Kaufman do? First, in the imaginary conversation between Dr. Brandt and Beethoven he explores the notion of acceptance; Beethoven relates how his own acceptance ultimately resulted in his own freedom and he encourages Brandt to acknowledge that she has fought the valiant battle, but now is the time to surrender peacefully. Kaufman devised a superb closing when he chose to have Clara present her now deceased mother’s final paper to an academic forum. Kaufman sets the markers earlier when he conceals Dr. Brandt’s preparations for death from her own daughter Clara. Clara is hurt and angry and feels she has been unjustifiably isolated from her mother. Kaufman ties up this loose end by a theatrical “fade” from Dr. Brandt to Clara, reading the closing paragraphs of Brandt’s paper. Mother and daughter are thus reunited.

The 33rd variation, a minuet, is played; the entire cast joins in the dance, exchanging partners in endless variation.

Bravo Kaufman! Bravo Timeline! Of course, bravissimo Beethoven!

33 Variations presented at Stage 773, 1223 W Belmont, Chicago, IL 60657. Previews 8/24/2012 closes 10/21/2012. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays (matinee and evening) and Sundays. Tickets $32–$42. More info:

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Newberry Consort (and Friends)

David Douglass and Ellen Hargis Show Dazzling Versatility

Newberry Consort, David Douglass & Ellen Hargis, co-directorsI have only discovered the Newberry Consort recently, meaning that although I knew of the name I never knew exactly what they did or nor had I experienced any of their performances. Now, after exposure to three of their remarkable presentations I am beginning to gain an appreciation of just what these artists are capable of giving us and the enjoyable journeys the lead through the span of several hundred years of early music.

Miracles, anyone?

First I attended Rosa das Rosas, a work in honor of the Virgin Mary commissioned by Alfonso X, a twelfth-century king of Castille, León and Galicia. The performance was accompanied by interesting visuals prepared to compliment the early music. The venue, St. Michael in Old Town, with its white and gold icons and imagery, was a stunning accompaniment to music that was, in essence, a token of gratitude for divine intervention.

Ellen Hargis
This was largely a vocal presentation with the solos of soprano Ellen Hargis soaring high into the nave of St. Michael in a flight of memorable beauty that mimicked the grateful King’s prayers of thanks.

Cloistered Gloom

My second experience moved from the courts of kings to the baroque convents of Italy and Mexico. Further, this was an “all woman” concert. All vocalists and instrumentalists were women with Consort co-Artistic Director Ellen Hargis leading the performers through a program that was composed and arranged by the women who populated these early religious institutions. For this performance I traveled to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. Rockefeller Chapel is a dreary place after sundown. The combination of darkened windows, subdued lighting and the music of these early convents invoked a solemn and somber mood for the evening.

Despite the subdued mood of the performance the experience was exhilarating. The single-sex presentation leaves an entirely different impression than does one of a mixed set of voices. It is not surprising that for the great 19th century composer Johannes Brahms, composing for his beloved women’s chorus was a favorite diversion. Hargis had her female companions on this journey well-rehearsed and coalesced into a stunning ensemble.

The Court of Ferrara

Piffaro the Renaissance Band
My most recent exposure to Newberry Consort versatility was again at the Rockefeller Chapel. This time it was a brilliant day and the sun shone through the windows of the nave prompting an entirely different perspective on life and the music that was presented. The Newberry Consort partnered for this special concert (an event presented in addition to their regular season offerings) with The King’s Noyse and Piffaro, the renaissance Band to present a concert of music from the late 16th century city of Ferrara, Italy. Consort co-Director Ellen Hargis provided the only vocal solos while co-Director David Douglass (also director of The King’s Noyse) performed instrumentally playing a Renaissance-style violin.

Douglass explains that the term noyse "...was only used for professional violinists, as in The King's Noyse. When violinists played with wind instruments at court, it was often referred to as the whole noyse. In the early 17th c. thomas Mace said the violin made a 'high-priz'd noyse fit to make a man's Ear Glow, and fill his brains full of frisks.'"

The effect of the timbres of the combined instrumentation was stunning. Besides the set (noyse) of Renaissance violins and Piffaro’s seemingly limitless access to drums, recorders, bagpipes, sackbuts, shawms, dulcians, krumhorns, lutes and guitars (many in several sizes) the superb vocal talents of Ellen Hargis soared above the musical accompaniments into the vaulted nave of Rockefeller. The oveall effect of this eclectic collection of instruments and the single superb voice of Hargis is not to be underestimated. The passions in the lyrics are also something of a marvel. Here is but one example:

Grievous martyrdoms, fierce torments, harsh fetters, evil snares, rough chains, where I night and day, every hour, every moment miserable lament my lost well-being; sad voices, complaints, cries and laments, tears shed and eternal afflictions are my nourishment and the treasured tranquility of my life, more bitter than any wormwood. Trans. Anthony Newcomb

Instrumentally there was great variety as might be expected given the vast array of instrumentation available. The entire performance, instrumental and vocal passed far too quickly and finished with what can only be described as a Renaissance hoe-down of some of the happiest music one might imagine at the court of Ferrara in the late 16th century. Even, or perhaps especially, the musicians were having a great and enjoyable time. Maybe that’s why the audience had a great time as well.


My initial contact with The Newberry Consort was as a pro bono consultant working through the Arts & Business Council of Chicago. In that capacity I got to know some of the artistic and administrative talent behind the organization. It has turned out to be one of the better experiences of my administrative career and I count my exposure to early music through The Newberry Consort as one of the more valuable experiences of my artistic career.

Here I have tried to present the range of experiences I had while attending Newberry Consort performances. While I was initially somewhat puzzled by the first performance I attended, wondering if I could become interested in a program series comprised of programs exactly like the one I had experienced, I quickly discovered that Consort co-Artistic Directors Douglass and Hargis are far more interesting and capable than a one-trick pony. They possess a knowledge of early music that is both deep and broad and the variety of musical experience available at their carefully programmed presentations is some of the richest I have experienced for a number of years. Further, the music presented represents the foundations on which our present musical heritage is based, making it both accessible and informative as well as artistically satisfying.

If you’re looking for something different that will gently coax you to come back for more, try The Newberry Consort. They are one-of-a-kind and the musical artistry is of the highest caliber.

For more information, see their website: The Newberry Consort Home

This entry has been updated by correcting some spelling errors and by replacing my original text with Douglass's comments about the origins of the word noyse to correctly reflect the etymology of the word.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening
One Hundred Years of the Same Old Same Old

The Musical

What I saw this past weekend at Griffin Theatre Company’s production of the Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik Broadway show was in every sense of the word a modern rock musical, replete with over-amplified, ear-splitting and word-obfuscating sounds masquerading as musical expression. In fact, most sources describe Spring Awakening as an alternative rock musical. Unfortunately, there is no particular agreement on what alternative rock is except loud with lots of twanging guitars and an outgrowth of punk rock.

Despite all of this, Spring Awakening is a provocative and moving experience. The musical follows the plotline of the original Frank Wedekind play rather faithfully and this is probably the great strength of the Broadway version; they started with a compelling story and dropped some songs and dancing into the works to arrive at a more or less winning musical.

Time and Place

As is my custom when I know nothing about a piece I refrain from doing any research or reading about it preferring instead to allow my own reactions guide my original judgments. My original thoughts ran along the lines of dating the piece as being written in the 70s or 80s with a lot of attention paid to teen-aged angst, coming of age issues and the rebellion of youth. The short gay episode struck me as being something tacked on by the current director trying to take advantage of the current fad of having a couple of gay or lesbian characters in a production just to keep everybody happy.

This is wrong from a number of perspectives. Only after I started reading about the musical and the play that is its basis did I come to realize just how far ahead of its time this particular plotline was. The original play was the product of Frank Wedekind, a German playwright noted for his criticism of bourgeois attitudes, especially towards sex. Astonishingly, he wrote the play sometime around 1890 or 1891. Further, all of the parts we might consider “modern” theatrical perversions—masturbation, homosexuality, sadomasochism between teenagers, sexual abuse of children, abortion, rape and suicide—are a part of Wedekind’s original version.

As controversial as Wedekind was during his lifetime his contribution to theater is unquestioned. He anticipated expressionism and made a major contribution to epic theater. At one point he served a nine-month jail term for lèse-majesté (insulting a reigning head of state) brought about by the publication of some of his satirical poems. Wedekind’s two-play Erdgeist (Earth-spirit) was the basis for Alban Berg’s Lulu, one of the twentieth-centuries great operatic masterpieces.

Now that I have the time and place of the original story firmly in mind (late nineteenth century Germany) much of the action of the musical makes a great deal more sense. Izumi Inaba’s marvelous costume designs easily convey both the time and place of the action as well as firmly delineating the differences between the boys and girls that dominate the action and the elder characters who act as foils against which the youthful actors push.  The industrial flavor of the set reminds us that at this time in world history the Western nations were seriously pursuing their courses toward industrialization; the age of machines was upon mankind with a vengeance.

Against this backdrop of severely repressed sexuality, the German traditions of pflict und arbeit (duty and work), the rebellious nature of all youth and the grim realities that often invade our everyday existence, the musical proceeds to unwind its tale of tragedy and hope.

The Music

Wedekind’s magical story provides a firm and unshakable underpinning for Spring Awakening. What could have made a truly great Broadway production out of this raw material is unfortunately missing. There are really no memorable songs or musical numbers in the over two-hour production. While it is true there is lots of “music,” and a great deal of energetic stomping (Nicole Pellegrino’s efforts at choreography seemed to consist of a great deal of foot stamping, twisting and leaping) what was missing was the feeling that music was making a significant contribution to an already praise-worthy plotline.

Add to this the entirely confusing sound design by Rick Sims and Josh Horvath and one wonders if the original Wedekind play in an English translation wouldn’t have been just as satisfying. For openers, there was way too much amplification of the band. The thundering sounds emanating from the instrumental musicians more than drowned the vocals of most of the singers. To counter this, singers were miked either by passing wireless hand-held instruments around or by wearing wireless transmitters whose outlines were visible under clothing. It’s not clear that all singers were always miked; some appeared to sing without the benefit of any audio assist and these were moments of absolute musical ecstasy.  The rest of the time, using amplified singers to overcome the excessive levels of the instrumentalists, words became a jumble of meaningless mumblings that absolutely defied decryption or comprehension.

Some of the best vocal parts occurred as in the final anthem The Song of Purple Summer that found the entire company singing as an ensemble, without any audio assist, so far as I was able to determine. This is what real music is about and should have been used (while suitably subduing the instrumental output) for the entire show.

The room is small, seating only about 100 patrons, so it’s not like filling the Lyric Opera and doesn’t take that kind of voice training. The few times singers did seem to sing against the instrumental accompaniment sans microphone the effect was both pleasing and had plenty of power.

There may be two reasons for using the strange combination of partial audio assist: first, two performances were typically scheduled for Saturday and that alone may have necessitated some help for the youthful singers whose voices are simply not accustomed to that kind of non-stop abuse over an extended period in a single day and second, not all singers are created equal and I’m thinking here specifically of Josh Salt the charismatic Melchior Gabor who ultimately survives to move on with life. The role of Melchior is large and Salt was called upon to sing major portions of about half of all the musical numbers. Salt seemed to have everything in his favor: looks, charisma, acting ability, a willingness to appear partially nude and boundless energy. What he needs some help with is his singing; he has plenty of vocal power but that seems to fail him when he is required to sing for long periods and indeed, toward the end of the show (his second for the day) his voice seemed to grow increasingly tired and less able to project as he might want it to even with the help of an audio assist.

There were plenty of good moments, as well. Josh Salt’s fine contribution has already been noted. Aja Wiltshire’s sensitive portrayal of Wendla, Melchior’s love object, was convincing. Mathew Fletcher’s portrayal of Moritz was inspired as was Fletcher’s singing (his was one of the best voices I hear that evening). Lindsay Leopold’s portrayal of Ilse was alluring to say the least. Ilse’s flight to the life of a Bohemian struck a bell in my own psyche and I found myself wanting to flee with her even though Moritz refused.

Special mention goes to Vanessa Greenway and Larry Baldacci who portrayed a variety of “elders” during the course of the evening. Various parents, school teachers, preachers and ministers, all came to life in the hands of these two veterans of the stage. They provided a strong anchor to the otherwise wild exuberance of the young actors.

Finally, a short but sweet episode between Adam Fane (Hanschen) and Adam Molloy (Ernst) deserves a brief kudo. Despite the late nineteenth century setting, Wedekind chose to present the first stirrings of love between two young men. Fane and Molloy gave it the sincerity it needed without the schmaltz it might have provoked.

The Verdict

It’s a worthwhile show, a good solid production and based on a great story and plot line. If you haven’t seen it, you should and you’ll probably enjoy it as did I. I could be a lot better musically. As I write these lines the show is closing. But if you get a chance to see Spring Awakening even with some of the flaws I have mentioned you won’t be unhappy for the experience.

Spring Awakening produced by The Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit closes today, January 8, 2012 with a 3:00 PM performance.