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Conduct Becoming

By James Yeara

Mengelberg and Mahler

By Daniel Klein, directed by Emile Fallaux

Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, Mass., through Sept. 10


Shakespeare & Company’s world premiere of Mengelberg and Mahler comes at a most timely moment. BP’s oil well fouls the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico. The president of the United States wonders whose ass to kick for it. The New York Times calls for a congressional investigation into doctors who aided the torturing of prisoners. A former U.S. president stands tall having sanctioned torture. Israeli commandos board a Turkish ship bearing humanitarian supplies guarded by “thugs with guns.” Polls show more people doubt “global warming” exists than did two years ago, and right-wing media celebrate. State politicians play budget yo-yo with people’s lives, and the wealthy worry about their dividend statements.

So when Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg (an excellent Robert Lohbauer) rises before the ornate wooden conductor stand downstage center at the beginning of this one-man-many-issues play to conduct Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and lecture on the duality of the music— “That right there is his genius,” stopping to cock an ear and listen, “ . . . this is the real story, ” closing his eyes as if ready to swoon listening, “ . . . this tempest in front of an angry God, this . . . horror”—he ultimately mirrors his own soul in exile. The moral dilemmas Mengelberg presents to his audience mirror our own. As the director Emile Fallaux writes in his notes, “What would I have done?”

Set in 1947 in Mengelberg’s Swiss chalet while he was in exile from the Netherlands, Mengelberg and Mahler plays fluid with time, moving from Mengelberg’s first meeting with composer Mahler in 1902 to 1947 to significant years in between and back to the 1947 present. Playwright Daniel Klein, whose wife’s parents were active in the Dutch resistance during WWII, makes Mengelberg as sympathetic as possible initially, focusing on his early advocacy of Mahler’s music and their subsequent lifelong friendship, despite the public criticisms of the composer’s work as “the self-indulgent ramblings of a little Jew.”

Klein is aided in this by Lovane’s performance. The historical Mengelberg looks, save for the beard, remarkably like Lovane, and the actor’s vocal bursts of enthusiasms capture what has been described as Mengelberg’s “highly idiosyncratic” approach to conducting. Mengelberg in formal three-piece suit soon flutters himself in remembrances, stripping down to T-shirt, pants, and slippers as he recounts his friendship with Mahler, his seemingly naïve dealings with the Nazi-occupiers of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, and his present outrage over the condemnation of his “collaboration” with the Nazis by the 1947 Dutch government: “ To be judged by philistines, that is the greatest sin,” he rages. Missing his beloved Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, he whines, “Blame someone else and hang onto your smug self-confidence.”

Klein uses the Bernstein Theatre well, with huge black-and-white historic photos and movies of the principal settings and people of Mengelberg and Mahler cast from front of house onto the backwall and highlighting the downstage raised conductor’s stand with a brilliant white beam of top lighting. Stage left serves as the cramped confines of Mengelberg’s Swiss study, stacks of music surrounding a chaise lounge for Mengelberg to collapse on and a gramophone to please and torment him from what he is now denied: creating music. His banishment comes from his declaration to the Nazis justifying the continued playing of Mahler’s music: “Not Jewish music or German music, there’s only good music and bad music.” And the punishment, a six-year ban from conducting in his homeland, is made all the more poignant given that he dies in 1951 just as the ban ends.

“Am I going to be judged for a crime of gestures?” he complains, but in Mengelberg and Mahler, there are more than just gestures at the heart of the play. This one-actor play makes for remarkable entertainment, especially being so close to Tanglewood, and to contemporary dilemmas.


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