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It is hard to believe that PDQ Bach, the fictional brainchild of Peter Schickele, celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Schickele, also an accomplished composer, arranger and lyricist, is best known for bringing the "lost" music of Bach's forgotten 21st child to life. The July 12 performance at Brevard Music Center "50 Years of PDQ Bach: As Good As He Ever Was," was a satire-laden show of the highest order. Shickele's genius lies in being able to play into people's predisposed perceptions and values regarding classical music. Like Victor Borge before him, Schickele has made a career achieving something very difficult – seamlessly combining the often separate worlds of high art and gallows humor into a wholly satisfying and revealing take on the sometimes unnecessary and stodgy trappings of a culture of musicologists, music scholars, and musical academicians who become so preoccupied with the significance of art that they forget to examine the art on its own terms. With PDQ Bach, the ivory tower crumbles to the ground, but only so the universal truths of why classical music is great may be fully revealed. While absurdist and very over-the-top at times, Schickele's mockery always recognizes the power and profoundness of the western classical canon.
This latter (and often subtly hidden intention of Schickele) was perhaps most apparent in his mock sketch, "Wonderful Wide World of Notes," an ESPN-like play-by-play of a concert where conductor Ken Lam and the orchestra were transformed into two rival teams. Subtly commenting on both the competitive nature of American sports culture and the overtly analytical tendencies of music scholars, Schickele and his fellow announcer Craig Williams played the role of sports announcers transplanted into a concert hall. The addition of a group of cheerleaders added tremendously to the riotous and surreally cognitive dissonance of the amalgamation of a concert hall and a sports arena. What ensued was a performance of Beethoven's Fifth, interrupted by a very humorously flubbed note in the horn section (during the transition to the second theme of the exposition), a free-spirited interpretation of a passage by the principal oboist (which resulted in some very humorous conflict between the conductor and oboist and even resulted in Lam's being put in "time out"), and, finally, an injury in the double bass section, leading to the fallen musician being replaced by a very out of place electric bassist.
There were, of course, all of the usual humorous trappings one would expect of a PDQ Bach concert. Perhaps most notable (and the most loved shtick of the production), was the introduction of PDQ's less than sonorous additions to the instrument family, including the sirenbone (a trombone altered to sound like a screeching siren) and the aptly named "proctophone." Schickele's interjections on this instrument with Nurse Crumley's over-the-top and painfully funny "off-coloratura" soprano vocalizations had the entire audience in stitches. The awkwardly distinct timbres of these noisemakers were made even more humorous when juxtaposed against a chamber orchestra performing stylistically appropriate Baroque patterns with all the grace and finesse one would expect in a serious concert setting. However, the orchestra was afforded many opportunities to participate in the comedy, most notably in the opener for the second act, Schickele's composition "Uptown Hoedown," a work the composer described as following PDQ's own unique brand of "manic plagiarism." The work was unabashedly derivative, a humorous grab bag of Copland-esque cowboy riffs which blossomed into a polyphonic jumble. This intensely humorous cacophony soon transitioned into a disjointed medley of American folk melodies, including "Turkey in the Straw" (transformed into one of the most awkward and subsequently hilarious measure-by-measure modulations ever composed), a version of "Camptown Races" complete with vocal "doo-dahs," and an unlikely combination of the first theme from the second movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 94 ("Surprise Symphony"), set to the glorious fanfare at the opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Fifth.
The crown jewel of Schickele's uproarious spectacle was also the conclusion for the concert, a "shortened version" of PDQ Bach's oratorio Oedipus Tex. Schickele's aptitude as a lyricist was on full display in this work, with such lines as, "my heart is a hen and it is laying eggs for you," sending the audience into a cavalcade of roaring laughter. The musical elements of the work fused 18th century instrumentation with Texan culture, notably in the basso continuo part (a combination of cello and a less fitting yet incredibly humorous and obnoxious melodic emulating a cowboy's harmonica). A moment of comedic genius was struck when Shickele and his cohorts sang "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You," sung to the melody of "Working on the Railroad" with "Jesu, Joy of a Man’s Desiring" providing the instrumental accompaniment. This was just one of many moments where Shickele successfully connected two disparate musical traditions through humor, as the Old World and the New, high art and low brow comedy, and classical cultural traditions and contemporary popular art were transformed into comedy gold.