“Three Pianos” is an awesome party for music nerds. That is to say, it does a great job of creating a theatrical representation of a Schubertstadt, which was, it explains, an event wherein a bunch of creative depressives would hunker down in the crappy apartment of 18th century superstar composer Franz Schubert, get blitzed, listen to the latest sublime Schubert composition, and attempt to transmute their melancholy into works of art.
The theme of this party is Schubert’s Winterreise (Op. 89, D 911), a 24-song cycle created around poetry by Wilhelm Müller about an angst-ridden Romantic who wonders through a snowy wood, brooding upon the cruelties of existence. The party’s hosts, creator/performers Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy essentially give this work the Reduced Shakespeare Company treatment: loving yet irreverent.
Inviting their audience to join them in a cup of wine or three (really, there’s wine), they offer witty, multimedia Cliff’s Notes on each of each song in the cycle. Surrounded by snowy trees, colored lanterns, a model of churchyard and of course, one piano each, they jump between tongue-and-cheek lectures, goofy historical reenactments and arguments over music criticism and music theory, which occasionally get personal.
Much of the strength of the trio’s fluid and creative presentation is their gift for modernizing (and often post-modernizing). They sing selections from the cycle in a self-consciously non-operatic style. They create ingenious contemporary analogies for the central image of the tromp through the cold forest. It’s a more active version of what would now be mindlessly refreshing Web pages while stuffing one’s face with processed food. It’s like aimlessly meandering through the aisles of Kmart with no particular purchase in mind. It’s like flitting desperately from one entertainment source to the next. Better, the trio argues, to confront depression head on, explore the hell of it, make something with it, like Schubert and his artistic friends did. Once this argument is offered the pre-curtain music choice of Chicago blues makes wonderful sense.
The other brilliant bit of modern adaptation going on in Three Pianos is its celebration not only of the artistic process by of the art of appreciation. It plays with that fact that in our world of cutting-and-pasting, posting, tweeting and commenting—our world in which “hipsters” are essentially cultural critics— fandom is a highly creative act.
I got so lost, in fact, in the fun of watching this talented threesome try to reckon with this strange, foreign art work which exerts so much power over their lives, that after the curtain fell, I found myself wondering if I would enjoy the actual Schubert piece on its own merits, divorced from the commentary. I’ve been listening to various versions of Winterreise over and over again, ever since. It’s beautiful.