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Time to teach: Schickele at Skidmore College.

photo:B.A. Nilsson

Ze Doktor Iss In Ze Houze

‘I hoped that Peter Schickele, despite his worldwide fame, would be approachable, friendly and enjoy relating to our students,” said Anthony Holland, an associate professor of music at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Commenting on Schickele’s recent week-long residency, he added: “My expectations were surpassed. He was warm and friendly and very easy to work with.”

That’s a comment echoed by all who described the experience. And to have Peter Schickele as an artist in residence was a two-for-one deal, given Schickele’s considerable reputation not only as a distinguished composer but also as the tireless promoter of the music of P.D.Q. Bach, music Schickele has continued to “discover” for over 40 years.

The residency ran from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5, and culminated in a concert presenting music from both of Schickele’s worlds, and bringing together the school’s orchestra and chorus.

“When his name was mentioned as a candidate during a faculty meeting last year, I was thrilled,” said Janet McGhee, who conducts the Skidmore Chorus and the Vocal Chamber Ensemble. “I worked with him many years ago when I was a junior faculty member at the New England Conservatory, and I knew he’d be terrific.”

Thomas Denny, who chairs the Skidmore music department, said he was pleased to welcome a composer with such versatile credentials. “We put him in contact with students in many settings,” he said, “coaching orchestra and chorus rehearsals of his music, coaching chamber groups playing his music and giving private coaching to composition students. He visited classes to talk about the music world, and even spent informal time with the students over meals. We expected that the students would come away energized and informed and entertained by all of this, and the residency lived up to our expectations.”

“I’m very interested in what young composers are doing and who they listen to,” said Schickele. “Working with the composition students, my first reaction was, ‘How should I do this?’ I end up saying things like, ‘You might think about doing this here,’ or ‘I find myself losing interest here.’ ” He is characteristically modest about the experience: “They may take my advice, they may not.”

Schickele sat in on McGhee’s Wednesday choral rehearsal, offering deft, insightful suggestions. Given the high level of humor in many of the pieces, he also made sure the jokes would work. After one of the P.D.Q. Bach songs, for example, he said, “What you did was very musical, but we’re talking gags here.” For one songs, which required a balloon deployment, Schickele offered advice, noting, “They don’t teach this at Juilliard.”

“He loves to make people laugh,” said Holland. “He also loves the blues. These two elements are woven throughout his music, and this is how he interacted with people at Skidmore: demonstrating the blues, where blues riffs occurred in his music, why it’s there, and how some passages of his music are there just because he ‘loved the way it sounded. . . .’ He’s like a kid in a candy shop or an amusement park. It’s all so much great fun—and it’s all so very well crafted and cleverly designed.”

Katarzyna Tomecka, a senior who sang in the chorus, enjoyed both the rehearsals and Schickele’s presence in class. “His experiences allowed me to realize how many different things you can do before settling on one life path,” she noted. “In terms of my own career, it’s nice to have met someone who went through those struggles to find himself through music, to prove that it can be done!”

Schickele even waded in on that most difficult of topics—an analysis of humor—with a Thursday lecture titled “What’s So Funny About Music?” He made it clear at the outset that he would be examining music, not lyrics, and illustrated the talk with musical examples ranging from Bartók and Debussy to Florence Foster Jenkins and Spike Jones.

Jones—the antic bandleader who rocketed to fame in the ’40s with “Der Fuehrer’s Face”—was a vital influence on Schickele’s career. “I was not at all a child prodigy,” he said. “I took piano lessons briefly when I was eight, but I was far more theatrically oriented. I was writing and putting on plays when I was 10, but it all started to come together when I heard my first Spike Jones recording—it was in a record store, and the song was ‘Serenade to a Jerk.’ I’d never heard anything like it. Shortly after that, I saw the Spike Jones traveling show, and by the time I was 12, all I wanted to do was imitate it. So my brother and I put together a show, complete with bandstands made out of orange crates, and our instrumentation was two clarinets, violin and tom-tom.” Schickele laughs at the recollection. “It’s a great thing that this was before video cameras.”

Thus the theatrical aspect of a P.D.Q. Bach piece. The Liebeslieder Polkas, settings of classic verse by the likes of Herrick and Shakespeare, calls for an accompaniment of piano five hands—which sent fifth hand Erich Borden scurrying from one side of the keyboard to the other, sometimes quickly circumnavigating the piano in the process.

That sense of fun informs Schickele’s own pieces, too: An overture titled One for the Money gave the orchestra’s percussion section a merry workout, while his Folk Song Set, which premiered some revised orchestrations, well served the freewheeling nature of songs like “Darling Corey” and “Old Dan Tucker.”

The enthusiasm of the music clearly infected the performers. Daniel Schwarz is an English major, a senior who has sung in the Skidmore chorus for several semesters. He was thrilled at the idea of working with Schickele. “Both of my parents are big fans of his music, so I’ve been hearing it since I was four,” he said.

Although music may not be a profession for Schwarz, he described the week as a life-changing experience. “I have these incredible memories I’ll be taking away from this. I’ll be telling my children and grandchildren that I actually got to perform Peter Schickele’s music for Peter Schickele.”

—B.A. Nilsson

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