BLO's "Schoenberg in Hollywood": Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom?

Sarah Womble, Jesse Darden & Omar Ebrahim in "Schoenberg in Hollywood"
(photo: Liza Voll/Liza Voll Photography)

While enjoying the World Premiere (commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera) of composer Tod Machover's Schoenberg in Hollywood, one couldn't help but be reminded of the ingenious 1953 Disney short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom, which treated the traditional origins of Western (tonal) music in its basic four elements of brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion. This production, recently performed at Emerson's Paramount Theatre, was nothing if not challenging to such tonality, with its deconstructed approach to composition. It even included a tribute to the Hollywood world of animation (though Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes rather than Disney) and brief but amusing musical references to movie music (“As Time Goes By” from Casablanca or the title song from Singin' in the Rain) and early television (the “Happy Trails to You” of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans). With a sparse, sometimes looney, sometimes devastating, Libretto by Simon Robson (based on a Scenario by the late Braham Murray), it's about as enthralling as a twelve-tone scale might ever be, in this one-act ninety minute piece.

Omar Ebrahim in "Schoenberg in Hollywood"
(photo: Liza Voll/Liza Voll Photography)

The place was indeed Hollywood, or some fantasy version thereof, and the time was 1935, as the real-life composer Schoenberg contemplated what writing movie music entailed. In the libretto, there are numerous pithy quotations and musical markers along the way. There were only three singers, Omar Ebrahim as Schoenberg, and, in numerous roles, Sara Womble and Jesse Darden. All three were outstanding, aided immensely by arguably the finest creative team ever assembled on a Boston stage. The performance, precisely Conducted by David Angus with a chamber ensemble from the BLO, was supported by excellent Stage Direction by Karole Armitage, terrific Sound Design by Ben Bloomberg, versatile Set Design by Simon Higlett and Costume Design by Nancy Leary, and exquisite Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago, with perhaps the most creative element being the Media and Projection Design by Peter Torpey.

Sarah Womble, Omar Ebrahim & Jesse Darden in "Schoenberg in Hollywood"
(photo: Liza Voll/Liza Voll Photography) 

It helped if you were familiar with Yiddish and/or German words, as too often side titles didn't translate them; for example, “manchmal”, “weiss ich nicht”, or “verklarte nacht” (though this last one belatedly was translated, as “transfigured night”). But there's no missing the intent of some of the better allusions, such as “silence is a curious accompaniment, isn't it?”, and “can a man know the truth and tell it to the greatest number and not be (mis) understood?”, or “theory must never precede creation”, “if you doubt me, recreate me”, and discussions of “unity”. With respect to the musical foundations, there were such apologias as “dissonance makes the world go 'round”, “tonality went the way of fidelity”, “I'm killin' tonal music” (sung to “Singin' in the Rain”) and “at least I treated all the notes equally”. More profoundly, there were observations about coming “so far, to find we are only what we are” and his defensive “I will guess the future, I will forget the past”.

There was much hope conveyed, despite the visual and auditory atrocities of Nazi Germany, such as the possibility of “music saving mankind”. This serious note was counterbalanced by the quip that Schoenberg (and Machover) share a tendency to present “a chord you just ain't expectin'.”

To quote the libretto, which in turn referenced Looney Tunes: “that's all, volks!”

(Note: Actually, that's not really all, since BLO will continue this adventurous 2019-2019 season with performances March11-17 of Britten's “The Rape of Lucretia” and May 5-12 of Ruders' “The Handmaid's Tale”).

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