Peter 'P.d.q. Bach' Schickele Wants To Be Taken Seriously -- Sometimes

May 11, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Without P.D.Q. Bach -- "the last and least of J. S. Bach's 20-odd children" -- Peter Schickele thought he'd have an easy year.

It hasn't worked out that way for the 56-year-old Schickele -- the creator of the fictitious P.D.Q. -- who took an "extended sabbatical" last year after 25 years of touring as the equally fictitious Professor Peter Schickele, the nutty chairman of the department of music pathology at the University of Southern North Dakota in Hoople and P.D.Q.'s "discoverer." Schickele's tours and his 14 records -- all of them best-sellers and three of them Grammy winners -- made him the clown prince of classical music.

"This was the year I was supposed to step back and take stock, but it's been the busiest and most frantic year of my life," says Schickele by telephone from Seattle.

Schickele hasn't totally given up on P.D.Q. -- he will still give an annual Carnegie Hall concert of the most deservedly obscure composer in the history of Western music and he will continue to make P.D.Q. records. But Schickele has always been a serious composer and he wanted to spend more time writing his own music, not that of his unbelievably untalented and insanely funny Baroque alter ego.

One of the fruits of Schickele's sabbatical can be heard tomorrow evening in Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall when the Baltimore Choral Arts Society presents the world premiere of the composer's "Blake's Proverbs," a setting of portions of the poet William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." BCAS music director Tom Hall commissioned the work from Schickele -- at a price of $6,000 -- two years ago.

But if you think that putting aside P.D.Q. meant that Schickele had it easy finding the time to write "Blake's Proverbs," think again.

Two years ago when he planned the P.D.Q. sabbatical, Schickele also began to plan a radio show. That show -- "Schickele's Mix" -- is now syndicated on American Public Radio and has turned out to be such a success that it is taking almost as much time as P.D.Q. did.

"The show is taped in St. Paul, so I'm always flying out to Minnesota," says the New York-based composer, who will be in the Meyerhoff audience when the work is performed. "And then all these Public Radio conventions -- like the one I'm attending now in Seattle -- want me to speak. So between the radio stuff, my own composing and my conducting of my own serious music, I'm busier than ever."

Schickele is expected to come up with an octet for a performance later this month in New York. That octet is not yet completed, but don't expect Schickele to miss his deadline. When you want someone to do something, it's best to ask a busy person.

Schickele has always been busy. In addition to his P.D.Q. music and his own serious music, he has written for films (he's the author of the score of the sci-fi classic "Silent Running"), for television (many of the most memorable musical moments in "Sesame Street" are by Schickele), and he has arranged music for such folk-pop singers as Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie. No wonder he wants more time for his serious side.

But Schickele's serious music isn't all that serious. His wonderful "Pentangle" for horn and orchestra, for example, calls for the soloist to do a magic trick, pulling a bunch of flowers from the bell of his instrument, and to sing a Scots ballad. And his music also uses vernacular idioms. Schickele is much influenced by popular forms -- specifically by jazz and rock and roll. The second movement of "Blake's Proverbs," for example, is almost like a blues song with a jazz accompaniment.

"When I began writing the piece, I couldn't get the sound of the Modern Jazz Quartet out of my head," says Schickele, who played in jazz bands as a teen-ager and as a student at the Juilliard School in New York. "I kept hearing vibes, string bass and drums."

Because Schickele's music is so infused by popular influences and because he made P.D.Q. Bach such a household word, there are people who don't know what to make of his attractive, accessible "serious" music.

"There are always a number of folks who are disappointed when I write serious music," he says. "The attitude is, 'Here's another clown who wants to play Hamlet.' "

On the other hand, there are some professionals -- mostly conductors -- who hesitate to program the real Peter Schickele's music.

"My chamber music gets played a lot, but my symphonic stuff falls in the cracks," Schickele says. "When you have musicians doing magic tricks in your music, conductors sometimes don't know what to make of it. And the fact that I'm so associated with P.D.Q. Bach only makes matters worse. That's why I'm on this sabbatical -- not only to to be able to write more but also to de-emphasize the connection with P.D.Q. Bach."

BALTIMORE CHORAL ARTS SOCIETY

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: Tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $10-$30.

Call: (410) 523-7070.

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