Artistic Melting Pot

Chamber Music PLUS creatively fuses music and theater

There's so much that's impersonal in today's world," says Harry Clark, co-founder of Chamber Music PLUS. "You can barely get a human being on the phone when you need help with something."

The remedy Clark offers to an impersonal modern world? Chamber music.

"Not to say that an orchestra isn't personal," he qualifies. "It is. But with chamber music, with one person per part, the kind of bond they make with the audience is a powerful one."

That bond will be even stronger in this weekend's Preludes: Chopin to Debussy to Poe, a performance that combines classical music with theater. Chamber Music PLUS is known for bringing in well-known actors from film and television to participate in its programs. ("Everyone from Lynn Redgrave on down," quips Clark.) But this one highlights local Tucson talent: an actor, a radio announcer/writer and a musician.

At the piano will be Dr. Rex Woods, vice director of the UA School of Music. An award-winning pianist who has performed around the world, Woods is known for his chamber work, particularly with the Bruch Trio. In Sunday's program, he'll play an assortment of solo piano preludes by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Woven through the music will be an original script written by Clark and performed by two more local favorites. James Reel's voice is familiar to listeners of KUAT FM 90.5, and his eloquence is familiar to readers of this newspaper; he stepped down as arts editor and theater critic last fall. Reel will exercise his acting talents alongside Steve McKee, an actor who's performed with Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, Live Theatre Workshop and Arizona Onstage Productions.

In the first half of the show, the pair will take the parts of academics arguing over Chopin's music; in the second, they enact an imagined meeting between Debussy and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

While Reel is well-versed in classical music, McKee confesses, "Most of my exposure to classical music was in Saturday-morning cartoons!"

Classical music is not his favorite, he admits. On the other hand, he says, "While someone may not enjoy a particular author or style of music, it is important to recognize the influence any artist has had on contemporary and future artists. That is part of what I really enjoy about this project."

The influence that artists have on each other was in the forefront of Clark's mind as he wrote the script.

"One thing that doesn't happen as much today as it did in Chopin's time is that these composers, although they had their musician friends, their better set of friends were artists in other fields," he says. "Poets, painters, writers and so forth."

One particularly lively melting pot for such cross-pollination was the salon—a 19th century cultural event no longer practiced in our age of digital communication. Artist, intellectuals and their followers would regularly gather, often in the home of a wealthy patron, to gossip and enjoy what was literally "chamber" music.

"Chopin was interesting," says Clark. "Although he was one of the great pianists of the 19th century, he hated performing live. He said he hated playing for people he didn't know, but he would play for hours at salons—his own music and improvisational stuff—where he knew everyone."

Woods will play seven of Chopin's 24 piano preludes, compositions that stirred a good deal of controversy in the composer's time.

"Even to this day, they're kind of perplexing pieces," Clark says. "They're short. They're aphoristic. They don't have real closure the way larger pieces do. They're very open-ended, and in some ways, they're extremely modern."

Scholars also argue whether the 24 preludes—one written in each key of the diatonic scale—should be considered a single collective work or separate compositions. What sounds potentially like an "angels dancing on the head of a pin" argument is brought to life on the stage by Reel and McKee, as dueling academics.

The writings of Chopin's contemporaries, such as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, are added to the mix, and all of it is intertwined with the performance of Chopin's own music.

The second half jumps ahead to the music of Debussy, and explores his fascination with the writing of Poe. By the late 19th century, Poe's work had fallen into obscurity in the United States, but he was exerting a significant influence over the literary and musical figures of France, Reel says.

"Not only by his sometimes morbid tales, but by the way he brought sheer sound to the fore in much of the poetry," Reel explains. "The sound of a line became almost as important as the meaning, an idea that came into play when the Romantic and Impressionist composers set poetry to music."

On stage, Debussy and Poe "meet up in some kind of afterlife," Clark says, "because, obviously, Poe died long before Debussy was born. It's very fanciful and very fantastic, but I would say 80 percent of the words I put in Poe's and Debussy's mouths are their own words."

Much like the composers and writers Chamber Music PLUS explores in its concerts, Clark creates a collaborative fusion between art forms, performers and the intimate audience of a chamber performance.

"Chamber music has always been my dream," says Clark. "The audiences here have been wonderful."

In a world of viral videos, maybe chamber music really is the answer.