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April 20, 2004

Professor Peter Schickele injects a spirit of fun into the works of P.D.Q. Bach

Peter Schickele is Professor of Music at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, though his sabbatical shows few signs of ending. ("They let me teach a class once every seven years or so," he explained recently.) On Tuesday night, the professor arrived by scooter at Symphony Center to lecture on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's performance of various extant works by P.D.Q. Bach, the most renowned of Bach's twenty children. The program of the Baroque master's work included the "Howdy" Symphony, formally known as the Grüß Gott Symphony, the Air for G Strings, and one of my personal favorites, "Rounds and Stuff," for bass (Shickele himself), off-coloratura soprano (Michèle Eaton), and tenor profundo (David Düsing.)

The first thing one notices about Professor Schickele is his apparel. If pianist Piotr Anderszewski, a.k.a. Pete Anderson, is a Prada model, then Piotr Schickele is…is…hmmm. His coattails are different lengths, his jacket has a rip under the arm (the result of enthusiastic conducting), his pants have a bellbottom flair, and his brown, untied loafers offset the ensemble very stylishly. A spry older man with a white bushy beard and mustache, he makes quite the first impression—especially coming as he did down the side aisle at Symphony Center on a scooter, hair flying out behind him.

The second thing one notices is that Schickele is as much of a German linguist as he is a musicologist. Throughout the evening, the professor had no qualms about using the Bach family's Muttersprache to refer to P.D.Q.'s career. We heard of P.D.Q. ‘s tenure as Musik Direktor ("music director," Shickele clarified) at the Hochschule für Lowenbrau (School for Lowbrows). Here, P.D.Q. was often seen going out for a Bier with his colleague Jonathan Boosey Hawkes. Later, when Shickele introduced the tenor soloist in "Rounds and Stuff" and "12 Quite Heavenly Songs (Director's Cut)," his philological training came out in full force. "David Düsing is especially talented at the German repertoire," Shickele said, "because he has an umlaut in his name." To clarify this technical term to the audience, he added: "Of course, an umlaut is just a semicolon that got drunk and fell over."

In the first half of the evening, the professor took the podium to conduct the "Howdy" Symphony (written in response to Haydn's Farewell Symphony), and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra flourished under Shickele's baton. Shickele is an uninhibited conductor—he jogs in place, leaps into the air, clacks his heels and shimmies as the music moves him. And once, during a repetition of the theme in the rather repetitive last movement (whose tempo marking is "Like a bat out of hell,") he yelled out, "One more time!"

The true spirit of P.D.Q. was in the air as six female first violinists lined up and began to play Aria for G Strings. While they played, Alastair Willis, the assistant conductor for the evening, signaled each woman to leave the stage one at a time. When only one was left, he walked off arm and arm with her. Emceeing from his lectern, Shickele summed up: "And that's tonight's episode of Bachelor Conductor, folks." Sadly for Mr. Willis, Anne-Sophie Mutter was not among the contestants.

In the next number, "Classical Rap," Shickele riffed on Upper West Siders. Temporarily dubbing himself "Grandmaster Flab" and the CSO the "Chicago Funkedelic Orchestra," Shickele delivered a rhyming, rhythmic treatise on the decadent Manhattan life. Frankly, though, this would have been way better in German (á la the world-famous German hip-hop group Fantastischen Vier), since the satiric edge was a bit lacking in lyrics like "Got no shame, got no pride/Just trying to get along on the Upper West Side." And I kind of wondered why Shickele chose to rap about the Upper West Side to a Chicago audience. I mean, like, can we even really get it? The highlight of this number, however, came when Shickele left the mike to go to the turntable (appropriately positioned onstage by the sexy all-male CSO stage crew). Grandmaster Flab then started scratching The Four Seasons, which had been written into the orchestral backup score. Bring it on, baby.

Most of the second half was dedicated to "12 Quite Heavenly Songs," a song cycle for three voices and orchestra, based on the signs of the zodiac. This was filled with atrocious puns, like the one Shickele delivered during the song of Aries: "There once was a lamb whose name was Klaus/He worked at a Leipzig pancake house. He was a battering ram…" Or, during the Cancer song: "Your crab grass is better than my lobster pot." But as well as showcasing P.D.Q. Bach's ear for wordplay, in fact these songs also showcased the lovely voices of David "Sloshed Semicolon" Düsing and Michèle Eaton. And during the last song, the song of the Taurus, those two singers got the last laugh as they repeated the refrain: "Bull, bull, bull, bull, how well I know that sound."

If you want to read about who Peter Shickele really is, please see the program notes in the CSO booklet, which straightforwardly describe his musical career and the awards he has received for his prolific compositions. Otherwise, just stay tuned for more news from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. I hope Shickele will return soon, to let classical music—and the thousands of mannerisms surrounding it—out of the box for another evening. In the meantime, if you're really lucky, you might catch him scootering his way down Michigan Avenue.