There’s an old saying favored by comedians: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” This wise thought probably dates back at least to the comedy clubs of ancient Athens, where young laugh-a-minute Plato and his crew used to try out new material on Open Megaphone Night.
Comedy is still hard, and in the context of music, it’s also rare. We’ve all heard funny songs, but take away the lyrics and they’re no longer funny. How often is the music itself amusing? Spike Jones, the zany bandleader of the ‘40s and ‘50s, wrote music that made people laugh, as did Carl Stalling, the chief composer for Warner Bros. animated cartoons.
Without doubt, however, the music world’s chief laugh-meister the past 50 years has been Peter Schickele, the creator of P.D.Q. Bach, the last and least of J.S. Bach’s 20-odd children, or, as Schickele describes him, “a pimple on the face of music.”
While P.D.Q. Bach became an industry, with constant touring and 17 albums (four of them Grammy winners), Schickele has managed to sustain a lesser-known parallel career as a “serious” composer of works for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensemble as well as film and television scores.
The novelty of the 80th “Birthday Bash” in honor of Schickele that VocalEssence presented to an enthusiastic capacity crowd at Ted Mann Concert Hall Friday night was that both sides of Schickele’s engaging musical personality were addressed, the “serious” side in the first half and the “less serious” in the second. Schickele, who walks with a cane these days but remains a vital presence, sat at the edge of the stage and commented on the music as it was played.
As this clever program suggested, these two worlds of Schickele’s often overlap. A witty piece played in the first half, a snappy tango version of the famous opening chords of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” titled “Last Tango in Bayreuth,” might have been a product of the fertile but twisted brain of P.D.Q. Bach, had he lived in the late 19th century.
Conversely, the dozens of pieces that Schickele has written in the guise of P.D.Q. are obviously “serious” in that they’re the work of a skilled and sophisticated craftsman. The big pieces that concluded the program — the Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion and the Birthday Ode to ‘Big Daddy’ Bach” - are full of sly tricks: unexpected accents, big build-ups to a squeak and surprising interpolations, like “Swanee River” emerging out of mysterious chords.
Philip Brunelle, who put the program together and presided over the concert, had the smart idea of engaging not only his own two Vocalessence choruses but the excellent University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble and its director, Craig Kirchhoff, which meant a number of Schickele’s seldom-heard wind ensemble pieces could be played. Charles Kemper was the adroit piano soloist in Schickele’s droll, rather French-sounding Concerto for Piano and Chorus.
Schickele, whose actual birthday is July 17, no longer makes an entrance swinging from a rope onto the stage, like Tarzan, as he did once at Northrop Auditorium. But he still composes. He told the audience he’s working on a piano concerto. As Friday’s concert demonstrated, his music has wit and charm and above all a generosity of spirit that is rare these days.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.