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Cabaret Pete: Schickele in concert.
By Kathryn Ceceri

Peter Schickele
WAMC Performing Arts Center, March 18

Peter Schickele is not your typical Juilliard-trained classical composer. Best known as the “discoverer” of previously unknown works by PDQ Bach, Johann Sebastian’s fictional forgotten offspring, he also was co-creator of the seminal ’60s nudie musical Oh! Calcutta!, and scored the sci-fi sleeper Silent Running, among other films. In more than 175 episodes of his Public Radio International program Schickele Mix (no longer being produced, but still heard in reruns on WAMC and elsewhere), he would use vintage recordings ranging from Eastern European folk songs to the Beatles to explain such concepts as 5/4 time or glissando in a way that made even the musically illiterate feel smart. (The show’s motto, as Duke Ellington put it, is “If it sounds good, it is good.”)

But Schickele has several other incarnations as well. As a composer of (straight) classical works, he’s written everything from chamber pieces for the likes of Yo Yo Ma to full orchestral symphonies. And, as he demonstrated at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio last week, this arranger for folk icons including Joan Baez has spent decades privately turning out pop ballads of surprising sentiment, given the sometimes madcap nature of his work. While his Cabaret Act (just one of the shows he tours around the country to perform) was nowhere near as frenzied and free-form as the radio show, which makes liberal use of ringing phones, slamming doors and rambling sidebars cut short by the irrelevancy buzzer, it did hit some comedic heights in its own low-key way, provide several quite listenable melodies, and even threw in a little lesson on songwriting in the process.

Mounting the small stage in a rumpled gray suit and comfortable shoes, the 68-year-old Schickele, sporting his trademark wiry beard and silver-tinged mane, was greeted with anticipation by the mostly mature audience. The bulk of the evening’s repertoire, accompanied by the composer at the grand piano and, for one number, by a couple of coffee cans, was made up of songs written to celebrate birthdays and other momentous occasions of friends, family, pets and fans. (Another of his touring programs, Condition of My Heart, reflects on his long marriage to poet Susan Sindall.) Other songs, like “Moon Over Woodstock,” which takes the point of view of dairy cows near his Hudson Valley home, were the musings of an artist who’s at once highly romantic and a little twisted. In “Uncle Pootie Sugars Off,” inspired by a photo of a maple-sugar farmer in a Walla Walla newspaper, he proclaimed in his rough but serviceable voice, “The Lord is offering us all a little sweetness in our life.” Likewise, the Philip Glass-esque “Feel Free to Walk Across My Lawn” implored the listener to litter his yard with love.

Most of Schickele’s songs have a sort of bluegrassy, early rock & roll feel. He describes his style of songwriting as “Schubert meets the Everly Brothers.” And all of his works, no matter how seemingly simple and off-the-cuff, contain at least a touch of musical complexity. To help do justice to the fullness of the works (and to lend a hand in the numerous rounds), he brought along David Düsing, tenor, and soprano Michèle Eaton. While the petite dark-haired Eaton and Dusing, a big guy with a blond ponytail, presented quite a contrast visually, they shared an easy manner and crisp, clear delivery that brought out the humor and subtleties of each song.

For the Schickele Mix fans in the audience, the highlight of the evening came with “If Love Is Real,” which after a few verses dealing with the subject veered off into a discussion of whether the title should also be the refrain—in this case the less poetic “Oh my, oh me.” Its didactic humor perfectly embodied the radio program’s appeal. On the other hand, the sweet-sounding songs dedicated to his family, which also includes son Matthew and daughter Karla, both now singer-songwriters for alternative rock groups, couldn’t help but make you wish that every milestone in your life would bring a song from one of the most inventive, playful and erudite musicians of the 18th and 21st centuries.

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