9.13.08: Old Wicked Songs @ the Guthrie

September 15, 2008.By William Randall Beard, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

Is there anything more improbable than writing about music? As a critic of classical music, I constantly come up against the absurdity of trying to find concrete language for something so essentially abstract and ethereal. For that reason, I am even more in awe than I might otherwise be of John Marans’ play Old Wicked Songs, which is currently being produced by Theatre Latte Da in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio.

It is 1986 in Vienna. Stephen Hoffman, a caustic America piano prodigy who is suffering from an artistic block, has come to study with the aging musician Professor Josef Mashkan. The petulant young man throws a fit when he realizes that the professor does not teach piano but voice. The teacher that Hoffman actually wants to study with has insisted he engage in this course first in order to teach the prodigy humility. Not only will he not be studying the great piano masterpieces, he will be forced to work on Robert Schumann’s romantic song cycle Dichterliebe (The Poet’s Love)–and not even as an accompanist! He is being asked to sing.

Hoffman finds this prospect utterly beneath him and rejects it completely, unwilling to admit that there is anything that Maskan can teach him. But in the face of the professor’s commitment to the music, unflagging determination, and great high spirits, Hoffman slowly begins to open himself up. The process eventually rekindles his passion.

Marans’ use of the Dichterliebe is not random. The arc of his scenes coordinates with the progression of the music. In his depiction of Hoffman and Maskan’s detailed and prodigious analysis of the songs, he touches the composer’s soul, and even manages to expose the emotional content behind simple chord progressions. In so doing, he provides fascinating insights into the joy and sadness at the heart of all great music.

The audience is let in on the thrilling process of artistic creation. There are moments when the collaboration takes on a white-hot intensity. Hearts soar as the music takes flight and the audience is carried away on that journey as well.

You don’t have to be experienced in classical music to appreciate the drama. My companion is only a casual listener, but he found the evolving relationship between the two men completely engaging.

But if classical music is your forte, you will find some delicious inside jokes, such as Hoffman mimicking Vladimir Horowitz playing Liszt, Wolfgang Brendel playing Beethoven and, most scathingly, Glenn Gould playing Bach.

The script is full of wit, and the repartee between these two smart men sharp and clever. But at its heart, this story is as dark as Schumann’s song cycle. During the course of the action, Kurt Waldheim, a reputed Nazi, is elected President of Austria. The dark history of World War II and the atrocities at Dachau cast a shadow over the personal intimacy the two men share, because Mashkan harbors a secret that could potentially destroy the relationship.

Marans’ script could hardly be better served than it is in Latte Da’s production. This is a labor of love for director Peter Rothstein. His voice teacher in college was a Viennese musician, so there is an element of autobiography to his tender and compassionate reading of the play. He directs from the heart and strives to make the most direct connection possible with his audience. And here, he succeeds completely. The result is a deeply moving experience that affirms our collective humanity through the power of music.

Rothstein’s casting also ensures the success of his production. Raye Birk brings a dry wit to Mashkan, but there are deep layers of pain to his clown. And Jonas Goslow makes Hoffman’s transition from an arrogant prig to a deeply caring human being utterly believable. But their true success is as a team. In the nuanced relationship that they establish, they create a single whole, just as singer and accompanist do in performance.

Add to that the detailed, evocative set of John Clark Donahue and the subtle lighting of Marcus Dillard and this is a class act all around.

It’s perfectly appropriate that Mashkan’s secret comes out in the context of the final song of the Dichterliebe. Maran’s intertwining of the story with the music is brilliant. But in the end, even he has to acknowledge the ultimate ineffability of music. He chooses to end his drama appropriately–and very effectively–with the long and moving postlude to the cycle.

Old Wicked Songs continues at Guthrie Theater through October 5.