The American composer Peter Schickele has had a remarkable career in which he has managed to have his own compositional triumphs and an entirely separate career in musical parody, in which his compositional triumphs have been much more dubious.
But that’s the sort of thing you’d expect me to say when we’re talking about Schickele’s creation, P.D.Q. Bach, whose scattered manuscripts were unearthed by Schickele in the course of his work at the equally fictitious University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. It’s fun to join in the joke and cast aspersions at Shickele’s imitation son-of-Bach, but the music, now some five decades of it, would never have succeeded as well as it has had not Schickele known exactly what he is doing.
The newest case in point is a work brought into being by a consortium of orchestras including the South Florida Symphony, which presented it Sunday at the Kaye Performing Arts Auditorium at Florida Atlantic University. The Simply Grand Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was performed by the fine American pianist Jeffrey Biegel along with the orchestra under the direction of its founder, Sebrina Maria Alfonso.
The Simply Grand Concerto is a goofy mix of straight-ahead Classical-era writing in the manner of early Beethoven and whimsical bits of Schickele shtick, such as a solo piccolo playing on an exposed upbeat; a short rock cadence to end the main theme (which makes clever use of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony); unexpected woodblocks and gongs; passages that wander well into the late 20th century; bits of jazz and boogie in the slow movement; a moment of the Light Cavalry Overture in the finale. Schickele is able to always create a seemingly normal older universe in which the listener immediately senses that something is strangely awry.
He knows, in other words, how to be a musical dramatist, so ably that the audience is listening with hyper-attention in anticipation of the next joke. And there were the usual bits of slapstick: Biegel couldn’t figure out how to open the keyboard at the beginning; a dancer in top hat and cane wandered out for a minute; Biegel sat there waiting in the silence when he should have been playing the cadenza, and gags that echoed keyboard humorists such as Victor Borge.
The modest audience Sunday afternoon seemed to have a good deal of fun with the piece, laughing out loud in most places. It’s also rather tricky in spots for the pianist, but Biegel played everything with style and ease, and he seemed to be having a wonderful time. He came out for an encore, a tender, subtle reading of the well-known Waltz in C-sharp minor (Op. 64, No. 2) of Chopin.
The concert opened with a somewhat shaky performance of the Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal’s Cave) of Mendelssohn. String intonation was spotty, and the music sounded under-rehearsed; there wasn’t much in the way of subtlety or nuance, just something that came across as more of a read-through than a careful performance.
Things were much better for the closing work, Tchaikovsky’s durable and much-beloved Symphony No. 5 (in E minor, Op. 64). Alfonso gave some remarks before the piece in which she said she was asking the orchestra to follow the composer’s metronome marks with fidelity, the argument being that the tradition is to play the piece too slowly. She indicated that this would be a tough challenge for the orchestra, but asked for the audience to bear with them. But in truth, I didn’t hear anything that was markedly faster than a standard performance, with a possible exception of the opening music, which wasn’t as lugubrious as it sometimes can be.
It sounded to me pretty much like the usual tempi, and none the worse for that. It seemed clear that much more rehearsal had gone into the work, and it paid off. The first movement was dramatic and lively, and a good horn soloist set a warm, intimate tone for the familiar second movement. The third movement waltz was somewhat matter-of-fact when it could have had more contrast and more suggestion of the world of dance, but the finale was smart and vigorous, and the transition to that swaggering major-key coda was very well-managed.
This was a most respectable performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth, and the audience applauded it fervently. Alfonso has a good sense of programming, as her concerts this season have shown, and the group is adding a fourth concert in this series for its upcoming 20th season. That’s a good sign, though it would be better if more people attended the Boca concerts and gave this group some deserved attention.
The South Florida Symphony repeats this program tonight at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets start at $35. Call 954-462-0222 or visit www.browardcenter.org for more information.