Three Pianos

December 8, 2011

in Performance Art, Plays

Play, with music

Written, Arranged, and Performed by
Rick Burckhardt, Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy

Directed by Rachel Chavkin

American Repertory Theater
Loeb Drama Center
Cambridge, MA

December 7, 2011 – January 8, 2012

Rick Burkhardt, Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy

Rick Burkhardt, Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy
Photo by Ryan Jensen, courtesy of American Repertory Theater

A wild and informal romp through Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise (Winter Journey), with three pianos, three pianists and a good sense of fun to balance the beautiful but melancholic music.

Franz Schubert wrote a tremendous amount of music for his thirty-one years and much of it is wonderful and moving.

Winterreise (Winter Journey) is a song-cycle written in 1827 during the last year of his life. Set to twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller, it is a loose account of a walk in the snow by a young man disappointed in love, featuring lyrical snapshots of various things along the way. The mood is achingly and penetratingly melancholic, enlivened by observant curiosity and ironic tonality.

"Franz Schubert" (1875) by Wiliam August Rieder

Franz Schubert (1875)
by Wilhelm August Rieder

Some years ago, while giving my dog a long evening walk, a good friend and I happened to touch on the subject of Schubert.

“Hey,” he mused, “seeing those dressed-up portraits, you might figure that he was Herr Schubert to those who knew him. But, isn’t it more likely that this artist in his twenties was hanging out with a bunch that was really just calling him Schub?”

It turns out that this is exactly the issue that Three Pianos addresses. What kind of guy was Schubert? What kind of social context did he have? And if we explore this great, late vocal work of his from that perspective, how does it give us insight into its spirit and meaning?

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, Rick Burkhardt

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, Rick Burkhardt
Photo by Ryan Jensen,
courtesy of American Repertory Theater

Apparently, Schubert was ferociously hard at work during his days – how else could he have produced what he did by the age of thirty-one? – but, at night, hung out with friends, sometimes at so-called Schubertiades, drinking and dancing parties, which featured renditions of his new compositions. So, the sense of Schubert as Schub, as an integral part in a group of friends, plays an important role in understanding what is behind the plaintive tones of Winterreise.

Though his friends may not have called him Schub, they did apparently give him an even better nickname: Schwämmerl, which translates as Little Mushroom, or less literally, as Tubby.

And so, three talented male actor-musicians, each with a piano, probe Schubert’s spirit – from both artistic and personal angles – over the course of two hours. It is an intense romp, without intermission, but, in addition to the levity on stage, is lightened by glasses of wine served in one’s seat.

In his thirty-one years, Schubert composed, among other things, over 600 songs, seven complete symphonies (plus the Unfinished Symphony and sketches for others), twenty-one piano sonatas, numerous piano duets and thirty chamber works.

Its structure loosely evolves from Winterreise, and the three actor-pianists putatively go through many of its songs in sequence.

But going through is a very general term that applies to anything from a vague romp in the direction of the music to a beautiful multi-part choral arrangement. And there are lots of improvisational stops in between.

In one of the gags, the three pianos – manageable spinet sized – are put in a circle and one of the players spins from one to the other performing one of the songs in a kind of gymnastic musical collage. It is very entertaining.

Franz Schubert by David Levine

Franz Schubert by David Levine

The show is loose, seemingly intentionally so, to give a sense of the usually inebriated and exuberant evenings Schub – or Schwämmerl – spent hanging out with friends. The buoyant wildness of the camaraderie, mixed with the depressive nature of the artistic results, becomes the fused inspiration for what ensues onstage.

So the performance is not, by any means, tightly structured and there is an improvisatory feel to it generally. But, despite the sense, from time to time, that things are not quite taut enough in the writing, or that, in fact, there is not enough of Schubert’s music that actually gets delivered coherently, the show has a good heart and a wonderful intent.

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, Rick Burkhardt

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, Rick Burkhardt
Photo by Ryan Jensen,
courtesy of American Repertory Theater

It might be particularly appealing to those who, feeling some distance from a “long-haired” song-cycle, would want to find a way inside, and learn about how to engage it. That rough and messy process, encouraged by this entertaining and effective performance piece, demonstrates the enormous value of doing so.

This is not theatre in the traditional sense, but it is more in keeping with the kind of performance experimentation that artistic director Diane Paulus has been actively undertaking during her past few seasons at the ART. The various interpretations of Shakespeare – Sleep No More (loosely based on Macbeth), Best of Both Worlds (a rhythm and blues take on A Winter’s Tale), and The Donkey Show (the Midsummer Night’s Dream takeoff, which continues to play at the Oberon Theatre in Harvard Square) – were also performance experiments; but, with their dramatic innovations they created a sensation, and drew in and stimulated new and younger crowds.

As a child, in 1804, Schubert’s musical talents, as a vocalist, first came to the attention of Antonio Salieri (famously depicted as Mozart’s nemesis in Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus), then Vienna’s leading musical authority.

It was indeed interesting at Three Pianos to see so many young people, and it was great to see them rise immediately to their feet at the end in appreciation of the spirit of this wild and unkempt, but moving, journey through a Schubert song-cycle.

My friend with whom I took the Schub dog walk was a college philosophy teacher. He said that his aim by the end of the term of an introductory course was not to get his students to know anything but to get them passionately interested.

With regard to classical music, Three Pianos is a wonderful attempt in the same spirit, and which, through its energy and honest curiosity, achieves the same kinds of goals.

– BADMan

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