It was meant as — and fortunately taken for — a compliment. It alludes to the pervasive feeling of child's play in his work. That's not usually an element that survives in an adult artist without looking both willed and wilted. If such playfulness were all that stood out, the Schellean muse would be a tedious visitor to our world.
But the humor and high spirits that are a hallmark of Schelle's music are typically handled with maturity and an enormous range of artistic capability. That was amply evident in a celebration of Butler University's longtime composer-in-residence Monday night at the University of Indianapolis.
Four Schelle compositions (one represented by stand-alone excerpts) were performed by an expert array of musicians. The program was cleverly constructed to move from "straight-ahead" Schelle to the more uproarious aspect of this protean composer, climaxing in the fully orchestrated version of his 1991 masterpiece, "Struwwelpeter." A song cycle for tenor and nine instrumentalists, the work exposes to American audiences the mordant humor and cautionary earnestness of a popular German children's book. I first encountered the original poems in my high-school German class, and could imagine them steering several generations of German youngsters toward rectitude while entertaining them by cultivating that peculiar emotion the Germans call Schadenfreude (joy in the misfortunes of others).
|Michael Schelle had a showcase concert at UIndy.|
I knew what to expect in the hyperbolic energy and commitment of soloist Steven Stolen, who has been associated with the piece since its inception. But the complete score and I were strangers until Monday night. Schelle's Butler colleague Robert Grechesky conducted a performance vividly suited to Schelle's imaginative detailing of the book's explicit threats and drastic punishments regarding juvenile misbehavior.
Stolen was sensibly amplified to give him a decent chance to compete with the occasionally stentorian ensemble, as well as to enable him to move about the stage and once, as the thumb-sucking boy soon to be shorn of his thumbs, crouching in terror behind his music stand. Balances were usually perfect, allowing the text to be heard and understood without fail.
Schelle's score is elaborate, dramatic and nuanced. The instruments bray, crash and collide. They wander with fleeting stylistic appropriateness all over the map. In one hilarious song, "Cry Baby," the instruments coo and cajole in lilting imitation of the salon orchestras of yore. The ensemble sets against the tantrums the tenor portrays in "Fat Augustus" passages of truculent, low-register chords. In short, the color palette of this ensemble makes Schoenberg's groundbreaking "Pierrot Lunaire" seem almost monochromatic in comparison.
Before "Struwwelpeter," the program set up expectations for that piece's savage humor in four preludes for solo piano from 2010's "Straight, No Lithium: Nine Bipolar Preludes for One Piano, Two Hands." As played with astonishing vigor and panache by James Loughery, this portion of the program made a nice bridge between the (stereotype alert!) learned-professor and the class-clown aspects of Schelle.
For instance, when he takes on J.S. Bach and bipolar disorder in "Bacchanalia," one of the three sets in "Straight, No Lithium," you can be sure that the parodistic joie de vivre will be shot through not only with technical knowhow, but also with the pathos of mental illness.
In any case, musically the result was delightful: The two fast movements took Bachian contrapuntal flow and either tangled it or goosed it with accents. Intricate statement and answer patterns were mussed, as if by a mind that can't quite deliver on the logic it wants to uphold. The opening prelude (the one not from "Bacchanalia") carried the apt title of "Barrelhouse," rumbling along with an uncanny sense of having energetic fun but also nearly going off the rails, like the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
The program opened with "Janus," Schelle's third piano sonata, given an intense, clarifying interpretation by UIndy professor Richard Ratliff. All of the three titled movements were enthralling, but the finale, "Looking Forward," was especially eloquent. It represented in sound a variety of stances toward the future, from at first flinging out hopeful filaments, like Whitman's spider, to trying out various pathways into the future (represented by contrasting dynamic levels and pacing) to the final measures of leaning into the unknown with bright anticipation, bodied forth here by bell-like figures in the piano's topmost octave with the pedal sustaining echoes of previous notes.
The program's other ensemble piece was Schelle's commemoration of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. "Their House Was Around Here, Somewhere" was conducted gracefully by Vu Nguyen of the host school's music faculty. The opening mood of desolation yielded to an agitated section. A particularly poignant transition took an isolated bass line in the piano (played by Schelle's wife, Miho Sasaki, into a pointillistic ensemble section, as if to represent shattered nerves. A melody with folklike characteristics, led by the clarinet, gradually accumulated lots of activity underneath it. The piece ended calmly, but with the sense of leaning over the precipice of uncertainty that all natural disasters leave behind them.