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Bach at Leipzig

Susan Sontag would be pleased that, in Bach at Leipzig, playwright Itamar Moses presents a work of art in which form and content are indistinguishable. This is no mean feat, given the manner in which "modern" education and criticism, much to Sontag's dismay, emphasize deconstruction over synthesis and emotions over catharsis.

(Left to right) Josh Hartwell as Graupner and Chris Kendall as Schott
(L to R) Josh Hartwell as Graupner
and Chris Kendall as Schott
The form that the 28-year old Moses chose for this play is the musical fugue, a type of composition perfected by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose "style, with its roughly even balance between the demands of tonal harmony and complex counterpoint, provided the ideal conditions for its full flowering." (Harvard Dictionary of Music) Both Mozart and Beethoven borrowed from Bach, adapting and evolving his Baroque ideas to Classical and early Romantic forms.

Before proceeding, consider the importance of the church organ in European life at this time: the organ was at the heart of the center of community life—the church. Today we may separate spirituality from religious dogma, or ignore both, but in the early 18th Century in Leipzig, the only choices were sects such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and other Protestant variants. For most folks, the only time they got to sit and listen to music was in church. The earth-shaking sacred music was intended to put the fear on G-d into you. However, at the time of the story, in 1722, there were rumblings of modern ideas. The Renaissance was gathering momentum and the American and French Revolutions were approaching.

But how does one shape a fugue into a theatrical form? One of the characteristics of a fugue is the manner in which the voices are introduced and how they play off one another. By voices, we do not mean various instrumentation, but rather themes. This distinction is important when analyzing Bach at Leipzig, because Bach's skill at introducing 6 voices sets him apart—rarely did anyone else achieve this consumate level of skill and inspiration—thus, in the play there are six principal characters.

Listen, if you will, to Bach's most famous organ piece, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and enjoy a wonderful rendition that is accompanied by an animated bar graph representing the music. You can literally see the six voices and how they play off one another.

As in a fugue, the characters of Bach at Leipzig are introduced one at a time, and then appear in counterpoint to the other voices that have been introduced before them. As you can imagine, structuring a play like this and creating an effective dramatic arc within such a framework requires content that resonates with the form. For example, the main plot, in which six different composers (voices) compete with each other for the position of chief organist and music director at Thomaskirche (an old church in Leipzig whose original organ dates to the 14th Century), following the death of the esteemed Johann Kuhnau.

(Left to right) Michael Bouchard as Lenck and Sam Gregory as Fasch
(L to R) Michael Bouchard as Lenck
and Sam Gregory as Fasch
At the beginning of the second act, Johann Friedrich Fasch, Kapellmeister at Zerbst (Sam Gregory), presides over an explication of the action from the first act, showing us how it was designed to imitate fugal structure. Leading off in Act I as well, Gregory sets a broadly humorous tone that provides an expansive canvas for the voices that follow.

Moses' approach to the historical material and its implied form resembles that of his mentor, Tom Stoppard; thus, in this piece, the dialogue serves as the contrapuntal voices. When Charles Isherwood reviewed this piece for the New York Times, he criticized the repetitious nature of some of the jokes, apparently missing the fugal necessity of revisting previouslly introduced ideas in a new context. One need look no further than Stoppard's Hapgood to see that the mentor's work was, at times, similarly confined by the subject matter—in that case, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle—thus, we find ourselves disagreeing with Isherwood's critique of the dialogue and humor.

In addition to Gregory's well-tempered work as Fasch, a former student of Kuhnau, who parted ways over sacred versus secular values, there is: Georg Balthasar Schott, organist at the Neuekirche in Leipzig (Chris Kendall), a dour local looking to move up; Georg Lenk, Kantor at Laucha (Michael Bouchard), a poor ("can't afford a middle name"), but clever, scamp; Johann Martin Steindorff, Kantor at Zwickau (Anthony Bianco), a rapacious young aristocrat; Georg Friedrich Kaufmann, Kantor at Merseburg (Jim Hunt), the oldest, yet most naive; and Johann Christoph Graupner, Kapellmeister at Darmstadt (Josh Hartwell), who regularly smarts from his unfortunate fate to always come in second to the esteemed Georg Philipp Telemann (a supernumerary).

To call this ensemble talented would be selling them short. Director, or should we say conductor or maestro, Stephen Weitz sets a pace worthy of Bach, as if he were listening to the wondrous tones just like the townfolk. The humor fits well with the Baroque period, leaning on erudition and implication, and the actors all produce their own intriguing versions of refinement, pomposity, and emotional subtext.

(Left to right) Jim Hunt as Kaufmann and Anthony Bianco as Steindorff
(L to R) Jim Hunt as Kaufmann
and Anthony Bianco as Steindorff
To top it off, these dudes are dressed to the nines, thanks to Brenda King's lavish costume design—though, beneath these noble threads we find six scam artists of the first order, each wheeling and dealing for the opportunity to oversee Leipzig's diverse musical resources. Lurking beyond the momentary alliances and shameless lobbying are the auditions, where the rubber meets the road. While the audience only hears the organ when the doors to the church are open, we are told that on the other side of the building, the music wafts out from the stained glass windows into the town, whereby the populace gets its music fix, in the absence of phonographs, radios, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, or even iPods.

Who will secure the most coveted post in Europe?

Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's regional premiere of Itamar Moses'sBach at Leipzig runs through May 18th. For more information: 720-898-7200 or boulderensembletheatre.org/.

Bob Bows

 

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