Bach at Leipzig

Itamar Moses’ Bach at Leipzig is in repertory at Shakespeare Santa Cruz; I saw the matinee performance on Thursday.

The NYT’s Charles Isherwood was not impressed in 2005.

Sitting through Mr. Moses’ reverent attempt to mimic the brainy irreverence of Tom Stoppard is like being forced to consume glass after glass of flat Champagne, with no hope of giddy inebriation in the offing. Inundated with arcana about religious and musical squabbles in 18th-century Germany, besieged by sophomoric jokes, you leave stuffed and queasy but sadly sober.

Two years later, the WaPo’s Celia Wren liked it a little better.

In Moses’s historical riff, six musicians gathered in Germany are competing for a prestigious job: organist for the church known as the Thomaskirche, an audition that really occurred. As war brews between German states and highwaymen go on the rampage, the keyboardists — all named either Georg or Johann — devise byzantine schemes to top each other.

With its wordplay, brainy allusions, bold swipes at history and virtuoso manipulation of artistic forms, “Bach at Leipzig,” astutely directed by Kasi Campbell, has a “look-Ma-no-hands” swagger that seems aimed at out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard.

The entire first act, for instance, adopts the intricate structure of a fugue, a musical form at which Bach excelled. The movements and confrontations of the rival musicians suggest a pattern of contrapuntal voices, from the initial spat between free-thinking Johann Friedrich Fasch (Karl Kippola) and his sour conservative enemy, Georg Balthasar Schott (Bruce Nelson), down to the late arrival of the insecure celebrity Johann Christoph Graupner (David Marks).

Well, I liked it a lot more. This is not Art Manke’s first shot at directing this play, and his experience shows. The cast and acting are terrific; Larry Paulsen’s Schott is especially wonderful. Go see Bach at Leipzig; you won’t regret it. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

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