Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Circus maximus: Michael Schelle gives a ringmaster class at Butler

Michael Schelle: At 65, still elfin with an edge.
Mark Twain once quipped that some German words are so long they have perspective. The perspective offered by "Schellekammermusikonzert" at Butler University Tuesday night was indeed lengthy, ranging over chamber music by Michael Schelle written between 1998 and last year.

Unsurprisingly, the perspective was also manic, for the most part. The "Schelle chamber music concert" traversed a post-modernist Moebius strip along which the ghost of George Antheil shook hands with the ghost of Spike Jones.

The spirits were willing, the flesh was wack in such pieces as the tenor-saxophone duet "Red Herring" and the climactic "Heartland," a mordant tour of the Midwest culminating in "Threnody for the Victims of Indiana."

Not many composers are given to Penderecki punning, but that title is just the start for Schelle. The movement opened with the composer conducting the instrumental septet, as he had through six previous movements, including the comically soporific "Badger Baby."An uncredited extra poked his head in through a stage door, looking like he'd just moseyed in from Oolitic or Gnaw Bone, before shuffling quizzically over to Schelle.

It turned out to be faculty tenor Thomas Studebaker, who made a credible bumpkin being persuaded by Schelle to help him sing a paean to Indiana as the ensemble vamped in the background. A couple of students came forward to inveigle the audience into joining Studebaker and Schelle, displaying outsize cards containing the lyrics, while the band played on. And the audience joined in lustily, being by that point silly putty in Schelle's hands. Such shenanigans as "Red Herring," featuring Matt Pivec and Jay Young in a raucous tenor-saxophone duo, had made sure of that.

Schelle may revel in visual humor, though I'm not sure how much of the performers' costuming is stipulated in the score.  In any case he also links his humor to musical matters, with a diagnostic twist. So, you want a picture of the vanity and aggressive honking of tenor players? Pivec and Young provided it big time. And it's likely Schelle had his eye and ear on the classic tenor duels of the 1940s and 1950s and the macho posturing they entailed.

 "My Precious Iron Cello" stands for the mellow euphonium that Michael Colburn played, with Catherine Bringerud at the piano; the three-minute piece has its share of mellowness, all right, but also capricious leaps among the instrument's registers, ending with a shout from the pianist.

Schelle has more than madcap tricks to trot out.  His sense of humor is often witty, not just funny. Four movements from "Straight, No Lithium," his suite for solo piano, included three evocative reworkings of J.S.Bach under the rubric "Bacchanalia: Three Bach Transformations."  From "Barrelhouse" to "No Lithium," they were played with precision and fervor by pianist Jim Loughery. The piece shares initials with a long-running TV show that, by many accounts recently, is nowhere near as funny.

Earlier, Richard Ratliff gave a convincing account of Schelle's Third Piano Sonata ("Janus"), named for the Roman god of facing both ways who lent his name to January.  I admired the deliberate restraint of the middle movement, "Frozen" (which owes nothing to the hit film), and its irresolute still-life feeling. The finale put into virtuoso piano language the search for meaningful direction with which everybody approaches the future, save for those who have every last detail planned. Such folks are doubtless not among those best served by Schelle's music; for the rest of us, it's a giddy trip.

Sobriety and open emotion are factors in "Mystic Mourning," which clocked in at nearly 15 minutes (about the length of "Heartland"). For violin, bass clarinet, double bass, percussion and piano, the piece used uncredited vocalists (mostly speaking from the audience) and one onstage singer. Maybe she was intended to be sensed rather than heard clearly, but I think she ought to have been miked. This piece had a long, patiently laid-out foreground before the main work of musical bereavement showed up, with percussionist Jon Crabiel cueing short spoken eulogies from the audience.

It was another side of Schelle, another perspective, but not one past the vanishing point of those long German words that Mark Twain mocked.