The delights of Three Pianos at the A.R.T.

Three guys who love Schubert
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 13, 2011

VIVA FRANZ! The “bad” singing and clunky piano technique in this “Schubertiade” express emotions that concert-ready performances often don’t get near.

Three guys. Not singers, but they sing. Not pianists, but they play the piano. Three pianos. Actors whose love of music doesn't seem like acting. They're in Three Pianos, a theater piece — hard to call it a play — that's just begun a run at the A.R.T. (through January 8). In New York, it won an Obie. Here, it won my heart.

The premise is simple. The guys — Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy (the writers, arrangers, and performers of Three Pianos) — have dropped in for a party that turns into a "Schubertiade," like when Franz Schubert's poet-, musician-, and artist-friends got together, drank, and talked about, listened to, or played Schubert's latest works. The central work here is Schubert's great tragic song-cycle, Winterreise ("Winter Journey"), his setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller about a "wanderer" whose fiancée throws him over for a rich man. Distraught, he sets out into an icy landscape that's a projection of his own dark thoughts, with a sadness approaching madness.

"David" (Malloy) — like Schubert's wanderer — is depressed because his girlfriend has left him. And in the phantasmagoria of Three Pianos, the contemporary party turns into an imagined Schubertiade. "Alec" begins with a lecture. With orotund British diction he intones: "Once upon a time, there was a song cycle." But as he gets more excited about Schubert, his phony accent disappears. "Rick" actually becomes Schubert himself. But the time zones are broken from the get-go. The apartment where the party takes place (designed by Andreea Mincic), with its pianos, potted plants, and drawers filled with contemporary stuff — laptop, Grey Poupon mustard, slices of cheese, booze — is also filled with birch trees, a toy town, a graveyard. Snow falls inside as well as out.

We get gossip about Schubert, who is dying of syphilis, and his circle of gay (in all senses) and depressed, wealthy and indigent bohemians. There are debates about the difference between opera and song (opera is about conflict on the world stage, songs are "on the stage which is the interior of the lover's head"), and whether songs — Winterreise or the Beatles' "Yesterday" — require trained voices to be "transcendent." (No!) Some lighthearted but serious discussion concerns how Schubert transforms a poem about not wanting to sleep into an ironic lullaby, or reverses expectations by using "happy" major keys for some of the saddest songs (Schubert bridles when he's accused of using this ploy too often). Not everyone likes all the songs equally.

A lot of the fun is in how director/collaborator Rachel Chavkin has the guys render the Schubert songs themselves. One song is delivered as a barbershop quartet (or, at least, a trio), in close harmony. Another as stride jazz with a saxophone added to the pianos. Another emerges, quite touchingly, as a rock ballad. The ironic "Mut" ("Courage") becomes a nightmare drinking song. When one of the guys is surrounded — trapped — by all three pianos, he plays the accompaniment swerving from one piano to the next. Schubert's body gets laid out on the facing keyboards of two pianos pushed together.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Blythe spirit, Review: Actors are concert pianists too, in PSC's 2 Pianos 4 Hands, Roller Disco the Musical! boogies down at Oberon, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Classical Music, Theater, Schubert,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
    Here are some of the dozens of classical-music events this winter I'm especially looking forward to (or most curious about).
  •   HEAT AND LIGHT: CLASSICAL CONCERTS OF 2012  |  December 17, 2012
    Boston has too much music on the highest level for one listener to hear everything.
  •   THE BSO’S CONDUCTOR ROULETTE  |  December 07, 2012
    The last few BSO concerts of the season have had their pleasures and raised some questions, especially about who might be the next BSO music director, one of Boston's — indeed, one of the country's —major cultural positions.
    There's a shiny new band in town, conductor Benjamin Zander's Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, a 117-member ensemble consisting of New England players from 12 to 21. The inaugural concert nearly sold out Symphony Hall for an auspicious debut.
  •   ADÈS RETURNS  |  November 21, 2012
    Last year's most satisfying Boston Symphony concert was led by the 41-year-old British composer/conductor/pianist Thomas Adès, who combined music from his marvel-filled opera, The Tempest (2004), with other works inspired by Shakespeare's late romance.

 See all articles by: LLOYD SCHWARTZ