PDQ Bach's Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra


* Review: Oregon Artswatch: PDQ in PDX

"Byess described P.D.Q. Bach soloist Jeffrey Biegel as not only a great pianist but a great commissioner: Biegel spearheaded the commissioning of renowned P.D.Q. Bach scholar Peter Schickele's recently "discovered" Concerto for Simply Grand Piano in 2015 with the involvement of over a dozen co-commissioning orchestras. Byess clarified the concerto's character and intent, for those unfamiliar with the unique music of J.S. Bach's most fictitious heir: "It's cheeky, and intended to be that way. If you hear something that makes you laugh, the composer wanted it that way - both of em!" Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach conceit allows him to compose - or perhaps I should say decompose- new old music in a way which is both authentic and satirical.

Shortly after the orchestra started up the first movement's bland, faux-elegant, faux-classical faux theme, Biegel wandered out to look the piano over like a used car, obsessively adjusting the stool and trying in vain to push open the lid before receiving help, finally, from concertmaster Carter. Biegel, seated at last, shook his head at his music and checked with Byess (busy conducting), only to have his a-ha moment and turn the music right side up just in time to play, with smug triumph, a perfectly timed single note.

The humor was mostly at about this level, which is to say Vaudeville, Looney Toons, Marx Brothers, which is not to say I didn't like it. I have rather a special fondness for ridiculous, timeless, corny gags executed with dopey aplomb, and Biegel's performance tickled me all the way through. In fact I'm pretty sure my chuckles got a few looks from the other Barn patrons.

It wasn't all 1930s humor, of course. At one point Biegel whipped out his phone and started texting and instagramming and whatever bored pianists do, all while the music tromped on through its universally comedic sliding trombones and bloated bassoons. We got a lot more sight gags, the groaniest of which was probably Biegel knocking on the piano and then knocking cross-eyed on his head with a cheesy woodblock sound. Even Zappa would have grimaced at that one.

It struck me, though, that under all the comedy the music was a very capable imitation of a Mozart or Beethoven concerto: harmonically, formally, orchestrally, pianistically. Schickele's no slouch, after all, and certainly could have done all of this "for real" if he'd wanted to (in fact, you should listen to some of his real music right now). Every now then he would shake off the 18th-century sententious stench and burst into these intermittent flashes of looney Aaron Copland stomps. I thought I spied a jab at anti-new music sentiment when every harmonically unusual passage saw Biegel making a priggish "this can’t be right" face. Of course, sometimes it was just wrong notes, or rather "wrong" notes.

The pompous doofus routine got extra thick when Biegel stood up behind Byess' back and tried to conduct the orchestra himself, flapping his arms around like a toddler in dad's suit. Byess directed him sternly back with an imperious finger. Back at the piano, chastised and petulant, awaiting his cadenza, Biegel missed his entrance and mouthed "now?"" to Byess... and then entered in the wrong key, correcting chromatically after a menacing glance from Byess.

The first movement ended and I wondered what the hell else they even had left.

The second movement started with a hushed, staggering, sliding little syrupy melody, and more stern looks from Byess when Biegel came in playing entirely too loud. It wasn't too long before we got some farty horns and the intentional use of that slippy, lippy amateur tone I was so pleased to not hear in the Debussy. Trumpet mutes introduced the final movement, with Biegel's sudden bursts into boogie woogie finally persuading the orchestra to play along. Absurdly long trills and a Grieg-like riff in major sixths made me wonder if, along with all the Beethoven and Mozart, Schickele was just trying to cram in every piano concerto joke he could think of.

It was the blues versus classical routine that made whole thing worthwhile. Biegel's solos were full of blue notes, faux blues riffs on the faux classical themes, like Gershwin aping Mendelssohn. Eventually Biegel dove in all the way and ripped straight into "When the Saints Go Marching In," his feud with the orchestra finally culminating in an Ivesian brouhaha.

After all that gaudy bombast, I was touched beyond words when Biegel came back out and performed, for his encore, an effortlessly endearing rendition of Chopin's waltz in C# minor."

By Matthew Andrews - Oregon Artswatch - July 7, 2017

* Review: Palm Beach ArtsPaper: "Pianist Biegel clowns, shines in P.D.Q. Bach at SoFla Symphony"

"The Simply Grand Concerto is a goofy mix of straight-ahead Classical-era writing in the manner of early Beethoven and whimsical bits of Schickele shtick, such as a solo piccolo playing on an exposed upbeat; a short rock cadence to end the main theme (which makes clever use of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony); unexpected woodblocks and gongs; passages that wander well into the late 20th century; bits of jazz and boogie in the slow movement; a moment of the Light Cavalry Overture in the finale. Schickele is able to always create a seemingly normal older universe in which the listener immediately senses that something is strangely awry. He knows, in other words, how to be a musical dramatist, so ably that the audience is listening with hyper-attention in anticipation of the next joke. And there were the usual bits of slapstick: Biegel couldn't figure out how to open the keyboard at the beginning; a dancer in top hat and cane wandered out for a minute; Biegel sat there waiting in the silence when he should have been playing the cadenza, and gags that echoed keyboard humorists such as Victor Borge. The modest audience Sunday afternoon seemed to have a good deal of fun with the piece, laughing out loud in most places. It's also rather tricky in spots for the pianist, but Biegel played everything with style and ease, and he seemed to be having a wonderful time. He came out for an encore, a tender, subtle reading of the well-known Waltz in C-sharp minor (Op. 64, No. 2) of Chopin."

By Greg Stepanich - Palm Beach ArtsPaper - April 6, 2017

* "Simply" sym-funny: Classical concert delivers laughs

Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra patrons may hear more challenging, thought-provoking works this season, but they won't have as much fun as they will at today's concert as Saturday night's show put the funny in the symphony.

Pardon the pun, but after an evening of Peter Schickele humor, it's hard not to keep laughing.

Though he never stepped on stage, the composer was the star of the show as the FMSO gave his brand new piece, "Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra!" a vivid performance.

Technically, the piece was by P.D.Q. Bach, the long lost son of Johann Sebastian Bach, or rather, the brainchild of Schickele, who graduated from Fargo Central High School. His fictional foil – who was conceived on a visit to town in the 1950s – allows the composer to poke fun at classical music convention and the results tickled the funnybones of those in Festival Concert Hall.

Pianist Jeffrey Biegel was the right fit in the main role, playing for laughs while hitting all of the right notes on the keyboard. It was the part he was meant to play, as he commissioned the work, with various symphonies co-sponsoring the writing. Biegel is as deft on the keys as he is with slapstick, mugging for the crowd, pretending to be sleeping, or impatiently waiting to play. When he did play, it was, well, "Simply Grand."

While anyone can make jokes about how stuffy classical music can be, what makes Schickele such a gem is his seamless blending of the serious and the spoof. He doesn't sacrifice sophistication for satire. Schickele laughs at what he loves. He throws shade at Mozart and Haydn and breaks an homage to Mozart into a boogie-woogie. [...]

Schickele, 81, sat in the front row for the show and took a bow with the well-deserved standing ovation at show's end. It was wonderful to see him embraced for a lifetime of helping people laugh at and love good music.

By John Lamb - WDAY 6 - Fargo, ND - March 18, 2017

* YouTube video of "PDQ Bach Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra"

Performance by Philharmonia Northwest; Julia Tai, conducting; Jeffrey Biegel, Piano; Benaroya Hall, Seattle; March 25, 2017