Music and Beyond

Chamber Music PLUS offers a novel presentation of the lives of historical figures.

It doesn't quite add up. The new performing-arts organization that's just come to town is called Chamber Music PLUS. The exact equation goes unsaid, which is odd because it involves speaking: An actor portrays one or more historical figures, commenting on the life and times of the composer whose music is being played. Also, Chamber Music PLUS isn't really new; it launched in 1980, on the other side of the continent. And it's not exactly true that it's just come to Tucson, if you consider that its artistic director, Harry Clark, grew up here (Duffy Elementary, Palo Verde High) before moving away to seek his fortune as a cellist.

Now Clark is back, and he's brought Chamber Music PLUS--and his duo partner-wife, pianist Sanda Schuldmann--with him. He's also bringing Michael Learned, Lynn Redgrave and Theodore Bikel. Each will be featured in one of this season's three performances.

Learned, best known as the mother on the 1970s TV series The Waltons, will portray W.A. Mozart's sister, Nannerl, in the Nov. 23 opening show, Sister Mozart. Redgrave will appear as J.S. Bach's second wife in Magdalena Bach's Will Feb. 8. And Bikel will play Paul Mendelssohn, brother of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, in Song Without Words March 28.

You don't have to factor out a quadratic equation to figure out the strange constant here: The actors don't play the composers themselves.

"I wanted to avoid caricature," explains Clark, who wrote these scripts and about 20 others along the same lines. "If you're doing a famous character, people know what they looked like, and you're forced into doing some costume or other pretense, but you're not if it's some character in the famous person's orbit. Plus, it's more interesting to see these famous people through the eyes of someone close to them. I wanted to avoid doing any kind of Amadeus; I thought having someone try to be Mozart would be sheer death."

Clark's scripts, which are drawn largely from the diaries and correspondence of his characters, are written in a way that makes it seem natural for the actor to read the lines straight from the script, if necessary, rather than memorize them. That's how Clark and Schuldmann have been able to talk people like Redgrave into participating--it's no more strenuous than breezing into a theater to do a performance of Love Letters.

These aren't cold readings, though. Sister Mozart is being directed by Susan Claassen of Invisible Theatre, and one of the season's later productions will be directed by Arizona Theatre Company's Samantha K. Wyer. "There's more openness to collaborations like this here in Tucson than back in Connecticut," says Clark.

Clark and Schuldmann launched Chamber Music PLUS in Hartford, and they still go back there for up to a dozen performances of four or five shows each season. But they've lived in Tucson for the past couple of years. "There are people here with whom you can immediately form close friendships," enthuses Schuldmann; as for Clark, he still has friends here he made in the third grade.

They realize it will take time to make a full audience of friends for Chamber Music PLUS, but Schuldmann is certain of their eventual success. "After all," she says, "we found an audience in Connecticut, which is the hardest turf of all, because there's so much first-rate competition in Hartford, and New York City is so close."

Clark estimates that up to half of his scripts revolve around women artists. "Those are the untold stories," he says.

Nannerl Mozart's story is all too typical. As children, she and her brother, Wolfgang, traveled throughout Europe under the stern eye of their impresario-composer father, astonishing audiences with their remarkable musical abilities. "Their father taught them with equal diligence in all subjects, except composition," says Clark. "Nannerl was like Mozart's opening act on that two-year tour. But all the energy was poured into Mozart; she became subsidiary to Mozart's succeeding. And she was five years older than her brother, so when she turned 16, she was too 'developed' to be exploited anymore. She essentially became her father's housekeeper."

Sister Mozart takes place in 1806, as Nannerl contemplates the 50th anniversary of her brother's birth--he had died 15 years before--and looks back on their time together. Between Nannerl's remarks, Clark and Schuldmann perform music of the period. Nannerl wrote no surviving music herself, and Mozart neglected to write cello sonatas, so the duo draws from a number of other sources. Schuldmann plays a solo piano piece Mozart wrote when he was four, and his mature D-minor Fantasy. There are short pieces by Franz Schubert; Mozart's elder contemporary and fellow musical giant, Franz Josef Haydn; and Mozart's little-known composer son, F.X. Mozart. Also, two sets of variations for cello and piano on themes by Mozart: one by Beethoven and another by Helene Liebmann, a forgotten female contemporary of Schubert.

Perhaps this will, after all, add up into an intriguing and unusual theatrical experience.

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