“I feel that I’m connecting with Beethoven,” said pianist/conductor Hal France. He’s referring to his five week engagement in 18 two- hours-plus performances of parts of the composer’s famed masterpiece Diabelli Variations. There are 33 variations and they are at the core of the play of that name by Moisés Kaufman at Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre.
Kaufman examines the processes behind Beethoven’s creation derived from a waltz by Diabelli along with musicologist Katherine Brandt’s passionate search to discover why and how the composer worked assiduously and long on so many permutations of what seemed a simple theme.
The script deals with aspects of Beethoven’s life during his intense , brilliantly productive last years, interacting with his assistant Anton Schindler and with Diabelli. As the composer’s deafness wounds him, the play equally follows parallel developments in Brandt’s waning life as she tries to deal with terminal ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) and struggles to heal a fractured relationship with her career-unfocused daughter.
33 scenes take place in two time zones, ours and the composer’s, sometimes intersecting. All the while a pianist, France in this case, live, plays the music about which so much story development resonates.
“There have been many portrayals of Beethoven,” he added, “but this shows him as a real, struggling, sympathetic human being,” reminding us that the play involves thoroughly researched history and is unlike deliberate fantasy and fiction such as, for example, Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus.
While admiring Blue Barn founder Nils Haaland interpret Beethoven on stage, France remains fascinated by how the play explores what happens in the creative process. “It’s one of the best pieces I've ever seen about such a process, a very elusive topic for meaningful dialogue.”
“Kaufman superbly gives us insight into Beethoven’s perfectionism, investing every ounce of his being into this new, sometimes revolutionary music and its unbridled emotional energy. We see a pure expression of the composer striving to mine every milligram of gold in the theme.”
The Variations took a very long time to complete. France believes that this is so because the composer was vitally concerned with his own reputation, “an innovator trying to go beyond where he’d already been.”
Kaufman’s play dwells on Katherine Brandt’s seeking to go where few had gone before, into researching the depths behind the Variations, especially why Beethoven chose to make something special out of a waltz which she considers insignificant. As she goes deeper into that, she also goes deeper into herself, struggling to understand what has happened to her body and to her relationship with her daughter. Her trip to Germany to see Beethoven’s writing first hand becomes an earnest effort to give her life more meaning.
France says that such devotion to research is hardly rare given that the Variations “are sort of the Rosetta Stone and Dead Sea Scrolls of who the composer was. With so many manuscript corrections, changes, modifications, rejections, re-workings deciphered, examined and studied, the score has become revered as something almost sacred, an extraordinary window into how Beethoven thought.” But France points out that it would be a mistake to assume that the music heard in the play is on some kind of lofty, intellectual plateau. There are many lighthearted as well as serious moments. And the score often reinforces the popular music roots of Diabelli’s time. “Beethoven is almost jamming on it.”
A jazz term? Why not? France plays plenty of types of music. “I don’t accept categories. There are many different forms of expression.” He plays jazz.
Certainly, as a significant opera conductor, France has long been involved in much theatre. That includes musicals, both as a conductor and on-stage performer. He’s been in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat in Denver, a Central City Opera production where he appeared as piano-player “Jake,”, hopping on and off the music director podium. He’s going to reprise both roles in May next year for Portland Opera.
He’s also conducted Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’ masterpiece Street Scene at Manhattan School of Music as well as Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s stylistic amalgam The Grapes of Wrath in the 2013 Chicago premiere at Northwestern University, his alma mater. By the way, a concert version of the latter was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2010 with Jane Fonda narrating, a year after her performance on Broadway in 33 Variations.
France, born in a small town on the Delaware River in Northwestern New Jersey, didn’t know he’d be in demand as an opera conductor all over this nation in his adult life. Trained from youth as a pianist, including studying, separately, with pupils of Artur Schnabel (“one of the greatest Beethoven players of the 20th century,” he comments) he graduated with a Piano Performance degree from Northwestern. But then he got a fellowship from the American Opera Center at Juilliard to study opera coaching. That pointed him in the career direction he most wanted to go. Subsequently he’s made a major name for himself in the opera world. He’d best known locally for his years with Opera Omaha where he guest conducted in his mid-30s and became the 10-year Artistic Director in 1995. During that time he decided to live in this city, despite having had a rigorous travel schedule, conducting in famed houses such as New York City Opera, Seattle Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Cleveland Opera, at Glimmerglass and Wolf Trap. He’s led the orchestras in three world premieres. Moreover he’s conducted operas by local actor/composer Paul Boesing who appears as composer Anton Diabelli in this play.
In this city, France has been exceptionally involved in the arts and this is not the first time he’s had a connection with Blue Barn Theatre. He directed Blue Barn Music Festivals in 2006 and 2007. Hence his being asked by the Theatre’s artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer to take the key role at the keyboard.
France has been very active in this city’s Habitat for Humanity, Omaha’s Multi-Faith Music Festival, Why Arts, a provider of arts experiences for seniors, at risk youth and people with special needs and Omaha Performing Arts 1200 Series Young Artist Nights. He also was the first Executive Director of KANEKO the non-profit organization founded by the artist Jun Kaneko and his wife Ree.
In fact, Jun Kaneko has a current Beethoven connection of his own. He designed a new production of the composer’s only opera Fidelio which had its 2008 premiere in Philadelphia. That makes its Omaha debut in April 2015 at Opera Omaha, Hal France’s former stomping ground.
As for what else in which the pianist/conductor is engaged these days, underway at present is a community education series on opera and music called “For the Love Of It “ which is at Joslyn Castle four Wednesday evenings starting May 14th. The first program, FYI, is called “Going Broadway.” More info at http://halfrance.com/reg-for-the-love-joslyn/
After some time off this summer, France resumes his role as adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where he will continue teaching an opera history course and co-instructing the Opera Workshop. He’s starting a new course in the fall, “Orchestra In and Out. ” Would it surprise you to learn that he’s focusing on Beethoven?
33 Variations continues through June 8 at Blue Barn Theatre 614 S. 11th St. Omaha. Thurs-Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. Tickets: $20-$25 Info at www.bluebarn.org