Tuesday, January 15, 2019

146 (2018-2019): Review: MAESTRO (seen January 14, 2019)

“Toscanini Was a Meanie”

If you’re seeking an evening of beautiful concert music built around scattered personal comments by a great conductor, you might be interested in the latest offering from Ensemble for the Romantic Century, now playing at the Duke on 42nd Street. This company, whose continuing creative forces are writer/pianist Eve Wolf, director Donald T. Sanders, and set and costume designer Vanessa James, has returned with Maestro, another of its unique concert cum dramatic presentations. These are usually built around a famous musical, literary, or visual genius, the current subject being Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). However, while musically masterful, it's also dramatically dreary. 
John Noble. Photo: Shirin Tinati. 
As in each of the ERC’s shows I’ve reviewed—Van Gogh’s Ear, Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter with Emily Dickinson, and Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely HeartMaestro (also the title for Hershey Felder’s recent one-man play about Leonard Bernstein) introduces highlights from the emotional life of its central figure, mainly through his letters.

The stage—suitably lit by Beverly Emmons and Sebastian Adamo—is set up with musicians’ chairs and music stands, as well as old-fashioned Victrolas, along with a minimum of locale-defining furniture: a desk, desk chair, and upholstered, green leather chair. At stage right is a grand piano placed before a windowed wall over which a projected verbal ribbon occasionally runs by. It shows lyrics to the recorded singing occasionally being played or presents information related to film clip projections (compiled by David Bengali) that often dominate the rest of the upstage area.

At times, you may find yourself so intent on the historically interesting clips that you neglect to look over to the titles explaining them. Some projections, however, are often little more than abstractions meant to express the emotional states suggested by the music. Their vagueness does little one way or the other to justify their existence. 
John Noble. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Veteran John Noble (Denethor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), made up to resemble the fiery conductor with his familiar mustache (but minus Toscanini’s goatee) and a white, phony-looking, overly abundant, leonine wig, is first seen conducting a rehearsal in 1949 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. As an orchestral recording of Verdi’s Aida is heard, we, the audience, become Toscanini’s musician-victims, being tongue lashed as he points to individuals among us (think J.K. Simmons in Whiplash). It seems that Toscanini was a meanie whose dictatorial streak toward his own musicians contrasts ironically with the disgust he eventually expresses regarding the fascist dictators of Italy and Germany, whose grasp he escaped by immigrating to America.
John Noble. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
You’d be better off reading Toscanini’s Wikipedia entry than seeing Maestro if you’re principally interested in learning about his life. A few basic facts are conveyed, including his sexually frigid relationship with his wife—to whom he remained married until she died—and his philandering, mainly with his longtime mistress, the much younger Ada Mainardi. 
John Noble. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Chiefly, however, the content concerns his reaction to Europe’s growing crisis under Mussolini and Hitler, his public rejection of their politics, his advocacy for Jewish musicians, and his move to America, where, having bought a home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York, he became a major celebrity, especially through his TV appearances. 
Mari Lee, Henry Wang, Zhenni Li, Ari Evan, Matthew Cohen. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
This being essentially a one-man piece, there’s no give and take with others, not even in an epistolary way; there’s also practically nothing about his musical ideas or conducting style. We take it for granted that he was a great musician but have to read the extensive program notes to find out why. 
John Noble. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Perhaps the deepest feeling the piece inspires comes from how some of the historical film clips echo contemporary American concerns. In particular, those showing the night in 1939 when 22,000 members of the German American Bund packed Madison Square Garden cannot help but remind us  us of certain present-day political rallies. 
John Noble. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Noble, using a a wavering, indeterminate accent, plays the maestro as an imperious, flamboyantly expressive man who wears his heart on his sleeve. Given the dearth of what he has to say, though, and the absence of real conflict, he never gives us a living man of flesh and blood. Instead, we get  the colorful, theatrical stereotype of a high-strung, demanding artist. 
Maximilian Morel. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
What saves the event, as it did for earlier ERC productions, is the music, exquisitely performed by a quartet of string virtuosi, Mari Lee, Henry Wang, and Matthew Cohen on violin, and Ari Evan on cello, with Zhenni Li doing wonders on the piano. Li and Maximilian Morel also share a memorable “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Morel joins the others toward the end. 
John Noble. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
The small orchestra offers classical selections from—other than Richard Wagner—an Italian composer-based repertory of Giuseppe Martucci, Aldo Finzi, Ottorino Respighi, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Giuseppe Verdi, and Guido Alberto Fano.  No attempt, though, is made to explain the relationship between any of these chamber music performances and the life and work of Toscanini, whose métier was symphony orchestras. Instead, regardless of any biographical significance it may have, the music seems to have been chosen more for its emotional, not historical, connection to the times through which the conductor lived. 

Maestro runs over two hours, at which length it would probably have bored even the maestro himself.


The Duke on 42nd St.
229 W. 42nd St.
Through February 9