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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Mengelberg and Mahler
Shakespeare & Company

Also see Fred's review of Dinner With Friends

Mengelberg and Mahler
Robert Lohbauer
As the exiled conductor Willem Mengelberg, actor Robert Lohbauer provides a fascinating, educationally provocative look into the older man's relationship with his friend, the late Gustav Mahler. Shakespeare & Company, based in Lenox, Massachusetts, stages this one-person world premiere called Mengelberg and Mahler in its Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre through September 10th. While the performance runs about eighty-five minutes, it actually seems so much longer—and, in this case, that is quite positive. Examining music, morality, political implication, one actor, through Daniel Klein's multi-layered scripting, holds maximum attention.

Mengelberg, living his remaining years in Switzerland, knew Mahler when both were young men during the early part of the twentieth century. Mahler died in 1911 and Mengelberg was already musical director for the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, a position he would hold until 1945. During World War II, the conductor evidently acquiesced when Nazis in Holland ordered him to remove Jewish musicians from the orchestra. After the war concluded and Dutch officials understood what Mengelberg had done, the man was sent away to Switzerland for six years.

The play opens as Mengelberg stands on a podium, in his home; lovely symphonic music plays and he, in that moment, conducts Mahler as if this were live performance. From time to time, images are projected on a rear wall and the footage provides perspective upon a lengthy time epoch and the conductor's interface with the composer. The self-absorbed Mengelberg is hugely agitated that he has been banned from his musical calling. Klein's text allows Mengelberg, while he ruminates and explicates his own sorry situation, the opportunity to re-experience Mahler.

Within the context of Nazi influence, Mengelberg and Mahler may be appreciated on a variety of levels. The interpersonal relationship between the artists intrigues because it endures, in Mengelberg's mind, for decades after his friend's death. The music itself, delivered either clearly or through scratchy recordings playing upon an old phonograph, is soulfully romantic. Who can possibly resist the poignancy of the "Adagietto," the fourth movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 5? Finally, there is an overarching question of Mengelberg's compliance. The conductor says, "When I lost sixteen of my children (members of his orchestra who were Jewish and subsequently dismissed), I went into mourning." He detested what playwright Klein phrases the "purification of the orchestra."

Lohbauer, burly and filled with a multitude of emotions, is extraordinary. He absolutely feels the play, and anyone watching, understands that his performance allows for complete fusion of actor with character. The script and Lohbauer first came together last September in workshop form at Shakespeare & Company. Emile Fallaux, a Dutch filmmaker, journalist and person of the arts, directs. Fallaux has (previously) noted that his own parents kept a family of Jews hidden in their house in Holland. Fallaux and Klein worked together prior to the collaboration on the current show.

The level of complexity increases when one considers that Mahler, Jewish, converted to became Catholic and was then thought to be anti-Semitic. Lohbauer, in his mid-seventies as is Mengelberg, portrays a man who is in turmoil. He might be standing with his score before him, moving around the room, sitting to rest, or sipping wine. Always, however, he is passionate and intense: wishing to re-assume his position and bring to the world, once again, the music of his beloved friend.

Mengelberg and Mahler continues at Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts, through September 10th. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.


Photo: Kevin Sprague


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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