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Old Wicked Songs

Piano music is focal point of two-man play

The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival is known for the variety of musical genres represented by its concerts and master classes, but local theaters also get in on the act, presenting plays in which piano music is a focal point.

In 2012, as part of the festival, the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre presented Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations (inspired by Beethoven’s work of the same name). This year Farmers Alley Theatre is staging Old Wicked Songs, a 1996 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play that features Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe. In collaboration with the Gilmore, Old Wicked Songs runs from April 25 through May 11.

The two-man play by Jon Marans tells the story of a 25-year-old American pianist once considered a prodigy who is burned out and has come to Vienna to study with a renowned piano teacher, Professor Schiller, hoping to recapture his passion for music. On arrival, the student, Stephen Hoffman, is disappointed to learn that before the famous pianist will work with him, he must first take singing lessons from the aging Professor Mashkan, in whose studio the play is set.

The two “lock horns immediately,” says director D. Terry Williams. “And of course that’s essential in drama, that you have this conflict, but there’s also a tremendous amount of humor in the play.”

Schumann’s Dichterliebe, on which Marans’ play is built, is in turn based on another work — poetry, in this case. The song cycle sets Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo to music. Each scene ends with a section of Dichterliebe, which means “a poet’s love.” According to Williams, the music is “almost a third character in the play. … Schumann’s Dichterliebe drives the action. It’s the mechanism for the bonding between the professor and the student.

“The professor chooses this song primarily because it expresses the love of a young man and the love journey he goes on from joy to sadness to melancholy to fear, which the professor believes Stephen needs to experience.”

The play is set in 1986 against the political backdrop of former Nazi Kurt Waldheim’s election to the Austrian presidency. Anti-Semitism figures in the friction between the naïve but pretentious Stephen and the jaded and lonely Mashkan. Gradually, secrets are revealed, and, through music, the professor and student come to understand and care for each other.

Williams feels very lucky to have the actors he has cast. His first coup was finding not only a veteran for the role of Mashkan, but one with special insight into the playwright’s intentions. Keith Baker, the artistic director at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Pennsylvania, performed in a production of Old Wicked Songs directed by Marans himself.

“When you go into a production, you’re never really sure of the outcome unless you’ve worked with everybody before. But going into this, I already know. I’ve seen YouTube excerpts of Keith’s other production so that was his audition,” Williams says.

Casting the role of Stephen proved to be much more difficult. Both characters play the piano, not only Schumann’s music, but also excerpts of compositions by Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Beethoven and Bach. This being the Gilmore Festival, Williams wanted both actors to be pianists, but he found that most of the actors who had played Stephen before had used a Disklavier, an acoustic piano that can also be programmed to play itself.

Williams was beginning to despair of finding someone with the right qualifications when former Portage Northern High School music director Catherine Walker Adams suggested Nicholas Mueller, a graduate of Portage Northern and the Western Michigan University School of Music who is both an actor and a pianist.

“I (held auditions) for the young actor in New York and Chicago and found him here in Kalamazoo,” Williams says. During Mueller’s audition, “he played beautifully, he took direction beautifully. I couldn’t have asked for a better actor.”

Mueller, 22, is director of WMU’s vocal jazz ensemble Gold Company II, a member of the vocal jazz quartet Four Corners and a freelance pianist. Although he was very involved in theater in high school, the character of Stephen is his first acting role in several years.

Old Wicked Songs is quite different from anything he’s done before, Mueller says. “It’s not a musical, it’s not a song-and-dance type of thing, but there is some very honest and sophisticated music that’s happening here.”

While Mueller doesn’t have a lot in common with his character, he can still relate to Stephen, he says. Having just spent several years in “musical academia,” he says, “I feel like I’m in a similar place that Stephen is — struggling to find musical integrity and honesty — and that’s really Stephen’s mission, I believe: just to come to terms with himself musically and also as a person.”

As part of the Gilmore Festival’s enrichment programs, WMU will present a Lifelong Learning Class exploring Schumann’s Dichterliebe in two sessions: “A Poet’s Love: Song and Drama,” 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 28 (exploring drama) and 1:30 to 3 p.m. April 30 (exploring the song cycle).

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Kit Almy

Kit’s background in arts and nature has allowed her to explore a variety of topics for Encore over the years. This month she introduces readers to MRC Artworks, a classroom and gallery in downtown Kalamazoo that helps disabled people gain self-worth by creating art. In addition to freelancing, Kit works for the Kalamazoo Public Library and volunteers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s DeLano Homestead, teaching pioneer programs.

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