Magnetic Music

The Zimbalist family stars in Chamber Music Plus' single performance of 'Mesmeric Mozart'

For the latest play with music presented by Chamber Music Plus Southwest, writer-cellist Harry Clark is counting on the animal magnetism of an actor in his 80s.

In Clark's Mesmeric Mozart, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., best known as the star of the 1960s-'70s TV show The FBI, will take the part of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century faith healer of sorts who theorized that sickness was caused by an interruption in the natural flow of the "psychic ether" that pervades everything. Magnets, he claimed, could help correct the ether's flow in patients. Because the human body has its own magnetic properties--this is the origin of the term "animal magnetism"--Mesmer himself could adjust the flow of the ether by fondling the bodies of his patients, who tended to be attractive young women. (He is also credited with early use of hypnosis, hence our word "mesmerism.")

One of Mesmer's patients was an attractive young Viennese pianist named Maria Theresa von Paradis. She'd been blind since early childhood; her blindness may have been psychosomatic, or it may have been caused by a detached retina; at any rate, Mesmer's treatment seemed to allow Paradis to regain her sight--though not with the happiest of results.

Paradis will be played by Zimbalist's daughter Stephanie, who starred in Remington Steele and about as many TV movies as there are compositions in Mozart's catalog. Paradis knew Mozart--he wrote a piano concerto for her--and Mesmer himself hosted a performance of an early Mozart opera in his backyard theater. Mozart's music, as well as some pieces by Paradis herself, will figure in the presentation, thanks to pianist Sanda Schuldmann, soprano Jennifer Nagy and glass harmonica player Lynne Drye.

That last instrument is an oddity; it operates on the same principle as when you get an eerie tone by running your wet finger around the rim of a glass. A version of the glass harmonica had been developed by Benjamin Franklin; Mozart became fascinated by it at the end of his short life, and wrote a couple of pieces for the thing. Mesmer had used one in his treatments, so Clark couldn't resist working it into the program. "It has a cameo role," he says, "but it steals the show."

The trouble is, only about 12 people in the United States can play it. Luckily, one of those dozen "armonicists" lives in Prescott Valley; Drye will lug her instrument down to Tucson for the play and for a pre-performance demonstration.

Clark admits that the Paradis compositions he's inserted into the show pale in comparison to Mozart's.

"The music of hers that we're doing is very simple, almost like folk songs, definitely not high art," Clark says. "She wrote more sophisticated things, including an opera, but 90 percent of her music was destroyed in a fire. But I doubt if even her best stuff was really that good." (Note that the one famous piece attached to her name, a Sicilienne, was a 20th-century fake; Clark isn't using it.)

What attracts Clark to Paradis more than her music is the drama of her personal story, and her musical friendship with Mozart. Both had been trotted out as child prodigies, and both had to deal with somewhat nutty families. Clark lifts most of his script from Paradis' letters and Mesmer's clinical notes. "I make up a few things," he admits, "but it's all pretty close to the truth."

Clark worked with Stephanie Zimbalist last season in his Tchaikovsky show, and thought it would be "pretty neat" to have her come back and perform with her father. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is the son of famed opera soprano Alma Gluck and noted violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr., who headed the Curtis Institute, one of the nation's leading music schools. Of actor Efrem Jr., Clark says, "He studied music, too, but he opted for money."

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