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Bach at Leipzig — People’s Light & Theatre Company

205At the end of the first act of Itamar Moses’s play, “Bach at Leipzig,” I turned to my friend, Byron Fink, and said, “I see. It’s a verbal fugue.”

At the top of the second act, Greg Wood, portraying the composer Johann Friedrich Fasch, writes a letter instructing his wife, Anna, also a composer, how to construct a fugue.

Ain’t it grand when observation turns into intuition?

Moses is clearly using the fugue’s form to build his play. He starts with two musicians, Fasch and Georg Balthasar Schott, who meet in the vestry of Leipzig’s famous Thomaskirche, both hoping to be named the successor to the church’s august organist, Johann Kuhnau, by the artist himself.

Fasch and Schott argue about whether a church organist should pay more attention to religious inspiration or musical form. This sets Moses’s first two themes in motion, as Fasch says form does not matter because beautiful music in any form is uplifting and serves an ecclesiastical purpose, whether motivated by Scripture or not, and Schott stands for the preservation of rules and strictures that Kuhnau would say governs church music.

Their discussion is more than a disagreement. The men are rivals, each of whom thinks he is entitled to follow Kuhnau to the loftiest musical position in Germany, and possibly Europe.

Fasch and Schott are equally surprised and dismayed to find they are not alone among the candidates for the Thomaskirche post. They may have begun their tussle for power while Kuhnau was alive, Schott stubbornly guarding a chapel door to keep Fasch from seeing Kuhnau, his mentor from whom he has been estranged, in time to receive his blessing as successor, but the leaders of Leipzig have invited six other organist/composers to compete with them for the coveted post. Among these are the roguish and feckless Georg Lenck, who in a world of Johanns and Georgs, doesn’t even have a middle name to distinguish him from the pack; the rakish and confident Johann Martin Steindorff; the fussy and confused Georg Friedrich Kaufmann; and the person who feels he is most entitled to be named, Johann Christoph Graupner.

All of the candidates present differing points of view about music, religion, and their intersection. Each also believes he is deserving of the Thomaskirche job, and each fears the musician they all call the “greatest organist in Germany,” Georg Philipp Telemann. Then, of course, there’s talk of a young upstart who may also be granted an audition, one Johann Sebastian Bach.

Moses, fictionalizing an actual event in music history, endows each of his characters with a sturdy wit, strong opinions, fulsome personalities, a talent for taunting and responding to taunts, vanity, and hubris to spare. His endless supply of ripostes and retorts is always intellectually amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny, and the cast of “Bach at Leipzig” at People’s Light & Theatre Company, directed by Pete Pryor, is unanimously adept at bringing forth of all Moses’s humor.

On that level, the play diverts quite satisfactorily. It’s enjoyable to see characters enter, each more pompous and egotistic than the next. Moses makes an absolute hobby of creating elaborate puns and wordplays, including my favorite gambit of giving sarcastically literal answers to leading or figurative questions. And the points of view of all of the candidates are interesting to consider.

Alas, all of these positive attributes don’t make for a particularly successful work or theatrical experience.

Moses is so busy being clever and constructing “Bach in Leipzig” to mirror the fugue form, he forgets to keep his play entertaining for its duration. Familiar territory seems to be trod again and again. No matter how many variations Moses finds for the action in “Bach at Leipzig,” and he finds dozens, none move the play or Pryor’s production beyond a heady discussion among grouchy, self-assured men, most of whom are not especially fond of each other.

Moses tries for complex plot maneuvers. Mightily, in fact. He introduces two candidates, Steindorff and Kaufmann, whose neighboring towns are at war with each other, Kaufmann being the ambassador who is supposed to quell the battle against Schleindorff’s father. He shows Lenck to be an unapologetic criminal who is just as skilled and happy as a highwayman as he is as a composer. He includes a roundelay of various rivals conspiring together to remove others from the competition. He cooks up a complicated poisoning scheme. He has several of the organists engage in swordplay. He uses letters, sent by pigeon, to advance exposition. He writes good, sophisticated jokes.

He does all of this, yet “Bach at Leipzig” remains as static as traffic heading towards King of Prussia during a morning commute.

The play just does not budge.

For all that happens, you constantly feel you’re still at Square One. The conundrum, and pivotal plot point, is which of the musicians will replace Kuhnau. Suspense comes from that, even though we know the answer. All of the intricate scenes, or episodes, Moses devises to take our minds off the main prize and focus us on the individuals involved have no dramatic or varying effect. Everything on the People’s Light stage seems pitched at one level. The tone and speech pattern of all of the speakers are about the same. Jabari Brisport, as Lenck, picks up the pace a bit, and Greg Wood has a knack for lending irony to all the iconoclastic Fasch has to say, but in general, Moses’s theatrical fugue becomes monotonous. You listen to hear witty lines more than to glean information or follow action that is busy but not active or engrossing. Even the fencing scenes fail to give spirit or dash to Pryor’s staging. The actors read their lines well and give distinct traits to their characters, Stephen Novelli being particularly good as the befuddled diplomat who can’t prevent a war or tell when people are pulling his leg, but the play remains inert, almost as if it was a series of recitations rather than a work that had numerous plot twists and sudden developments.

I think that for all Moses stuffed into “Bach at Leipzig,” he keeps his play dependent on dialogue and doesn’t have much going on that isn’t expressed in words. Bons mots may abound, but they are too plentiful and too much of a kind to register beyond recognition of Moses’s talent for turning a wry or arch phrase.

Moses ought, also, to limit the mileage he tries to get from jokes about the proliferation of Johanns and Georgs. A running gag gets tired after its fifth of about a dozen uses.

Danny Gardner, as Steindorff, deftly displays physical humor, but neither it nor Brisport’s moments of sleight of hand are enough to offset Moses’s talk-laden roadmap for “Bach at Leipzing.” You feel as if you’re watching and listening to the same byplay over and over again. An appointment to be the chief organist of the Thomaskirche, and therefore the most important musician in Germany, is hardly much ado about nothing, but “Bach at Leipzig” makes it seem like it is.

Though the People’s Light cast doesn’t give “Bach at Leipzig” the lightness or lift it needs to soar theatrically, each member scores in a significant and individual way. Their acting provides the delight we don’t get from the sum of Moses’s script.

Kevin Bergen is brusquely candid as Schott, the composer who wants to uphold established musical traditions and find a way to express and advance Lutheran doctrine with the mathematical precision available through music.

Schott has an answer for everything, and he doesn’t mind being dismissive, outrageous, or prejudiced. Asked by Fasch why music should be confined to Lutheran enjoyment or to any constrictions at all, Schott answers it’s important to distinguish all things Lutheran from other ideologies, or no one will know whose houses should be burned.

Bergen makes Schott and his straightforwardness a comic delight. You want to hear the way Bergen presents Schott’s arguments, whether you agree with Schott or not.

Stephen Novelli finds the right level of obliviousness and fuddy-duddyism for Kaufmann, who is incompetent in politics and tends to be a little behind his rivals when it comes to figuring out what’s going on and where everyone stands. Novelli is especially good at showing how assured and on his game Kaufmann thinks he is. A scene in which Kaufmann takes actual dialogue for a passage in a play, and comments on the matter in the play, is wonderful. It doesn’t pull “Bach at Leipzig” out of its mire, but it is amusing and shows Novelli’s talent for making his character both engaged and benighted.

Greg Wood exudes reason as Fasch, the most famous of the Thomaskirche competitors besides Bach and Telemann. Wood is a fine sparring partner for Bergen, his primary foil, and has a way of keeping Fasch superior to the others in our estimation.

Jabari Brisport and Danny Gardner bring energy to Pryor’s production as Lenck and Steindorff.

Brisport, with his wide grin and the joy with which he portrays Lenck’s incorrigible delinquency, adds needed lightness to Pryor’s staging. While Lenck is too devious to convince anyone to root for him getting the Thomaskirche post, Brisport makes us eager to see the character’s antics and the pleasure he takes from them.

Gardner marches in conveying all of the youth, wealth, power, and position that have spoiled Steindorff and that make him feel entitled. You can see the confidence of the ladies’ man every character says Steindorff is, and you hear how Steindorff bests Kaufmann in every verbal squabble.

Gardner is excellent in a scene in which Steindorff is taken ill.

David Ingram is all bluff and bluster as Graupner, whose unexpected arrival in Leipzig is meant to put the other candidates in a tizzy, Graupner being the decided favorite for the job in his estimation, one he shares with his rivals with such swagger they believe him.

Telemann is portrayed by a diminutive actress who says nothing but takes delight in stepping over a prone Steindorff to enter the Thomaskirche chapel and audition.

Bach is unseen, although his music is heard grandly. One of Moses’s points is Bach is a wild card, barely mentioned and easily dismissed by most of the candidates for this critical post that influenced the history of music.

Music must pour from the chapel throughout “Bach at Leipzig,” sometimes in short snatches and often suddenly. Jorge Cousineau did a fine job with the sound design that bathed People’s Light’s Steinbright Stage in the glorious tones of several composers.

Roman Tatarowicz provides a beautiful set that captures the Gothic nature of the Thomaskirche. Marla J. Jurglanis’s costumes were uniformly handsome and excellently constructed.

One thing that puzzled me throughout People’s Light’s production of “Bach at Leipzig” was the pronunciation of the famous church where Bach was Kapellmeister and where Martin Luther once preached, the Thomaskirche. The correct pronunciation in German would be akin to “TOE-mass-keer-keh.” The People’s Light cast says “TOE-mass-keer-sheh.”

“KEER-sheh” means cherry. It’s OK to give the “che” in “Kirche” a slight “ch” sound, but a full “sh” is offputting. Given the clever use of German during announcements prior to “Bach in Leipzig” beginning, I expected more meticulous pronunciation of such an important word. The same goes from “Kirchhof,” which should be pronounced “KEERK-hoaf” and not “KEERSH-off,” which would mean Cherry Square and not Church Square.

“Bach at Leipzig” runs through Sunday, August 10 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. are scheduled for July 16 and 30. No 2 p.m. show is set for Saturday, July19 or August 2. Tickets range from $46 to $26 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by going online to http://www.peopleslight.org.

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