Playing on the nerve ends, which music does best, Butler's ArtsFest delves deep with a program of musical monodramas

We have learned so much about mental illness in the past half-century, and its sorrows and stigmas are never far from the surface in a society rife with threats to equilibrium.

Art has its own uses for diseased minds — sometimes short on compassion and cures, perhaps, but instructive as to how tenuous a person's hold on reality can be and what kind of experience, even insight, might lie on sanity's other side. Cue the music – it can help.

Three musical monodramas presented Thursday night in Butler University's 2015 ArtsFest showed the possibilities. They were bracing entertainments, harrowing in every moment, yet somehow exhilarating in effect. Virtuoso performances by small ensembles supported virtuosity on steroids from three solo singers. Director William Fisher and the production team made everything cohere. We were treated to a gallery of compact, macabre Gesamtkunstwerke.

Put in its place by the eminent cognitive scientist Steven Pinker as "auditory cheesecake," music may have an advantage in the non-adaptive function he assigns it when it comes to evoking mental disturbance. Because it tells us nothing that enabled us to evolve, in Pinker's view, music may be peculiarly apt for rendering maladaptive behavior, such as insanity. 

The result doesn't have to produce pleasure, which Pinker's cheesecake comparison implies. Direct playing upon our nerve-ends is music's common coin: As a result we're there in extremis with King George III, a left-at-the-altar Australian spinster, and the most notorious underworld boss America has produced.
Michael Schelle continues his fruitful connection with Steven Stolen.

The new piece, Michael Schelle's "The End of Al Capone," held its own between two landmark works by Peter Maxwell Davies, "Eight Songs for a Mad King" (1969) and "Miss Donnithorne's Maggot" (1974).

The 2015 ArtsFest commission starred tenor Steven Stolen, a longtime collaborator of Schelle's, as the Chicago mobster in his last days, terminally burdened by syphilis-induced insanity. A lengthy prelude, with Vu Nguyen conducting an eight-piece ensemble, opens the piece, as our eyes focus on a lumpy, cluttered bed to one side of the stage.

The prelude is an instrumental toccata of fits and starts, dominated by percussion, particularly snare-drum crescendos that recall the Outfit's weapon of choice, the tommy gun.

A bleary, confused Capone emerges from the bed like a salamander shouldering through mud. He then launches into a nonstop paranoid rush of moving around the bedroom, rearranging furniture, playing mad hide-and-go-seek with himself, muttering distractedly. He clutches a photo of Mae, his wife, and repeatedly calls the name "Sonny," the couple's son.

In the midst of this hamster-wheel frenzy, Stolen is afforded a few lyrical passages, some in Italian, as the work proceeds, in which his singing voice was tantalizingly on display. At one point, wandering in a nostalgic, melodic haze toward the band, Capone is guided back to his disheveled quarters by the conductor.

The man who ran The Outfit in Chicago gets an unsettling portrayal.
Projections on the rear wall replicate historical photos of Capone's Florida home and more abstract images; for one episode, they become thin racing lines streaking by horizontally as the ensemble lays down a perpetual-motion pattern.

Schelle has loaded his ensemble toward deeper voices, with two clarinets (one of them a bass), tenor saxophone and cello adding gravity to the violin and piano sonorities, over which percussion flavors everything. The grounded musical scenario parallels what we see: Capone, even when erect, has no stretching bravado left in him. His body seems to burden him as much as his mind. He is often crouching, crawling or bent low and, in the final measures, sinks behind the bed.

The Davies works are easy to rank: "Eight Songs for a Mad King" is more involving in all respects. It has nuance and variety, including a troubling, precarious balance between humor and pathos. In Thursday's performance, it also benefited from the hypnotic intensity of  Richard Armstrong in the title role. Every line he spoke, shrieked, rasped or sung seemed well thought-out without suffering from affectation. As reduced in stature and abused as George III is here, in Armstrong's performance he was still every inch a king.

Fisher's direction was fluid and inspired, bringing the ensemble members, sensitively conducted by Stanley DeRusha, into the action in appropriate ways — climaxed by the heart-stopping royal destruction of Davis Brooks' violin. Percussionist Jon Crabiel's laconic yet commanding demeanor as the king's keeper was just right. 

The companion work to "Eight Songs" was performed by an almost identical ensemble supporting soprano Mary Nessinger as the title character of "Miss Donnithorne's Maggot." The distasteful last word of that title simply designates an odd whim or fancy, and was sometimes used for light dance pieces in the 17th century, usually with a name attached.

The deranged spinster designated here was an Australian woman cruelly abandoned on her wedding day by the failure of her bridegroom to make an appearance. Nessinger's performance was enthralling as she moved around an array of dressmaking dummies, chatting with them as wedding guests, focusing poignantly on the one holding her wedding gown and posing wistfully behind it.

When required, her coloratura abilities seemed intact; in the occasional growls of her deepest voice, she was wryly comical. Her performance seemed uninhibited by her carrying around the score; it was close to representing the real Miss Donnithorne's only pleasure after her abandonment: reading.

Despite the immortality given this poor woman (as Miss Havisham) in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," her plight is simply less interesting than King George's. Madness in great ones must not unwatched go, Shakespeare tells us in "Hamlet"; madness in lesser ones, though it may merit our sympathy, is less likely to be watched or listened to attentively. That's a shame when it happens in real life; not so much when presented in artistic trappings, however well-designed and -executed.


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