Friends of Chamber Music review: Playing outside the (toy) box

Pianist Orion Weiss and Salzburg Marionette Theater animate Debussy and Schumann’s music.

 by JEFF WINSLOW

Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music keeps expanding its mission, living up to its name in broader and broader ways. Its Not So Classic series has for some years now brought in audiences looking for something outside the traditional chamber music box. Now it’s even embracing other arts. On the Sunday before Halloween, FOCM brought the Salzburg (Austria) Marionette Theatre to Portland State University for a kid-friendly afternoon matinee at Lincoln Performance Hall. Orion Weiss, a young pianist familiar to Portland audiences from gigs with Chamber Music Northwest, made the music half of the partnership, even throwing in a few solos.

Orion Weiss joined Salzburg Marionette Theatre at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Orion Weiss joined Salzburg Marionette Theatre at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Pianist and puppets’ first joint set was both romantic and Romantic: an enactment of the final scene of The Awkward Years (Flegeljahre), a novel by German humorist Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (better known as Jean Paul), accompanied by Robert Schumann’s early work Papillons (Butterflies), inspired in 1831 by the same scene. At a masked ball, twins woo the same woman. The twins may look the same, but they have very different personalities and one is a much better dancer than the other. At one point, they exchange masks – in this production they exchanged legs! At another, a giant boot (said to be wearing itself) waltzes (sort of) through the ballroom. The guests dance and woo through the night. Eventually a clock strikes six in the morning, but everyone has slipped away.

The intrigue moved Schumann to create a string of a dozen short dances, mostly in triple time. Moods vary fantastically from one to the next, but there’s very little heavy oom-pah-pah, except by that boot of course. Like its namesake, the music mostly flits about, until finally all melody and even harmony melt away to a single note.

Fancifully costumed marionettes of the main characters and other dancers played out the drama in front of a simple set of overlapping walls, with unadorned openings for doors. Their handlers, dressed in black, receded into the darkened stage background and it was easy to ignore them even as they made arms and legs weave about and heads nod. The piano sat close against the other side of the stage, angled so Weiss and the handlers could keep an eye on each other but the sound still projected towards the audience. Weiss played with great precision and tightly melded music with stage action, yet there was nothing mechanical about it. His performance would have been an expressive delight even on its own, and helped bring the characters to life. Audience laughter was frequent but gentle, except for one outburst that may have loosened them up for later.

There was just one dull spot in the program: Schumann’s insipid Flower Piece from 1839, played without staging. I’ve read special pleading for this work here and there, but not even Weiss could rescue it, though he tried hard, maybe too hard. Notably, it revealed just how many kids were in the audience – there was far more fussing, as it wound its way down the interminable garden path, than during any other part of the program.

Fortunately Weiss followed up with the final number from Schumann’s set of eight Novelettes, which even though written about the same time as Flower Piece, displayed far more of the charm and inventiveness that was Schumann at his best. He had a gift for stringing together short musical scenes or moods in a way that keeps up interest and leaves you with a satisfying feeling. That gift shows in Papillons, in his most famous piano works, and in this work too, even though it’s not so well known. Weiss, having much more to work with, again offered an incisive yet expressive performance, and the kids quieted down considerably even though no marionettes were prancing about.

It was time for a break. During intermission I watched the Salzburg group set up their deluxe miniature playhouse for Claude Debussy’s The Toy Box (La boîte à joujoux). At first I was afraid I’d spoiled surprises for myself, as they fit various shaped brightly-colored boxes together in intricate ways that weren’t all apparent from the finished structure. But I needn’t have worried. No one, except maybe an experienced magician, could have predicted the madcap antics that spun out of it.

Orion Weiss played with and without puppetry in Portland. Photo: John Green.

Orion Weiss played with and without puppetry in Portland. Photo: John Green.

Debussy came late to parenthood. He was 43 when his only child – daughter Claude-Emma – was born to the former Emma Bardac near the beginning of his fourth and last long-term relationship, which became his second marriage a few years later. The tumultuous domestic history this suggests, as well as his delight in his daughter’s play with dolls and other toys, may explain why he was so taken with versatile artist and toy designer André Hellé’s illustrated children’s book, Story of a Box of Toys (Histoire d’une boîte à joujoux). It’s a fairly stock tale of a brave toy soldier and a brazen toy Polichinelle who vie for the attentions of a rather fickle toy Dolly. She eventually settles down with the soldier and has lots of children, but the conflict must be resolved by a pitched battle between opposing toy armies of soldiers and polichinelles. Hellé’s illustrations would charm anyone, let alone someone as finely attuned to visual elegance as Debussy.

The result was this chamber ballet, originally completed in 1913 with piano only. The road to the first live performance with orchestra was long, and complicated by World War I and Debussy’s final illness. He didn’t live to see it, but along the way, after watching a few tryouts, he observed that the spirit of his work might only be truly realized with marionettes.

It’s easy to understand why. The ballet of the time was still largely a frilly, grandiose affair, but the music is laconic, witty, unpretentious and unsentimental, as might be expected from the man generally considered to be Europe’s first Modernist composer. Like many who have spent so many adult years without children in the house, he must have been a father who, no matter how affectionately he behaved toward his daughter, never talked down to her. There’s certainly no trace of it in the music. However, his observation wasn’t acted upon until many decades later.

The Salzburg group’s zany interpretation charmed from the first. Puppets popped out of unexpected doors, actors’ faces appeared in unexpected windows (how did they get inside there anyway?) and boxes split off the structure to become a gazebo for Dolly and a cannon for the battle, which even fired… more toys. Relaxed and delighted laughter greeted every surprising plot twist.

The kids seemed to enjoy it too. There was hardly any fussing from the audience, and what little there was sounded suspiciously adult. There were a few moments for the adults too, though. When Polichinelle’s advances didn’t seem to be having the desired effect, he tried a few suggestive hip thrusts. I couldn’t resist a snicker, but it might have raised a few awkward questions for parents after the concert!

As in Papillons, Weiss performed expressively but always with sensitivity to the stage action. The expression here was different, as it should be: warm, delicate and low-key rather than fanciful and extravagant as in the Schumann. But as before, he kept a wise eye on the action; music and zaniness ratcheted along hand in magically manipulating hand. He proved himself just the right chamber music performer for FOCM’s successful experiment in productions outside the (brightly colored) box.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer, pianist, and Debussy enthusiast.

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