Monday, January 14, 2013

What's Next?: "The Morini Strad" Closes at Burbank's Colony Theatre

Willy Holtzman's latest theatrical success, "The Morini Strad" (2011), closed last weekend after an extended run at Burbank's storied Colony Theatre. Whether the Colony Theatre itself will close is now the subject of its own drama. Let us hope it is not a tragedy. The cost of continued success threatens to lower the curtain on this valuable organization whose theatrical heart is indeed true. To learn more about the company and how you can support it, visit their Website.


In restating the true story of a Stradivarius violin's mysterious disappearance at the end of it's owner's life – the life of the once-famous virtuoso violinist Erica Morini (1904-1995) – Holtzman develops timeless themes – hope and defeat, truth or deception, old versus new, the challenges of friendship, the paradoxes of love, and the worthy goals of life – in a counterpoint made more delicious by its exposition through the world of music.

Mariette Hartley's performance as Morini was breathtaking. The interchanges between Morini and her new friend, the unknown master luthier Brian Skarstad (David Nevell), form the only dialogue, yet the story is much heightened by the dramatic violin playing of 14-year-old Geneva Lewis, a prodigy virtuoso in her own right. Could the touching second-act waltz be Hartley's Lullaby of Burbank?

The only false tones were the jarringly discordant off color humor that seemed as out of place as would be Honegger's anvil in the Ode to Joy.

The play appeals strongly both to those who make music from the inside out and to those who enjoy music as listeners and observers. As a performer and composer, I was touched by and appreciated Holtzman's exploration of the nature of the true heart of artistry, the cost of success, and the transience of fame. A favorite moment of mine was when Morini explains to Brian that there are some things that musicians just don't discuss with "civilians." It's a funny line, and Holtzman might have intended this barb to convey the artist's self-perceived superiority to common persons and Philistines, but contrariwise, I have found it, not at all beneath me, but a hard thing to explain some of my deepest musical musings to non-musicians. I identified very strongly with the scene in which Morini and Brian come to see that they each, in their own way – she through playing the violin and he through repairing it – have essentially communed with Stradivarius himself – have made a connection that would be inconceivable to any but a few whose peculiar life experiences might enable such a perspective.

Whether it is truly possible, and whether I should admit it or not, I have unquestionably had this experience myself. It has come after deep study of a composer's score while attempting to understand why the music is the way it is. Of all things, the ink of the masters – at least, before the 20th century – did not fall upon their scores haphazardly. A thought precedes every note. It is enough for many musicians to read a score and play it, even to analyze it in some fashion and demonstrate how this relates to that. But, "Why is the music so?" is a far deeper question.

Actually, many Whys are easily explained, but not all. Why did Joseph Haydn write the development of one of his early symphony movements in five-bar phrases, for instance? It was hardly the norm! I struggled with that question for quite some time many years ago, until I considered what is said of his nature, that he was a jolly and well-liked man. I have known a few of these, and none was without a good sense of humor. In the case of this particular symphony, was "Papa Joe" making a little joke? Can you imagine him in the moment just before he composed this music, sitting there thinking, "Well, what next? Shall I give the orchestra a little fun and write them some five-bar phrases, ha ha?" I think it would be in his nature to do just that, and as weird as it sounds, at the moment that this scenario occurred to me, I felt as if the notes were once again coming into being, as if I were watching Haydn himself pen the odd phrases with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in the air, and with the foreknowledge of his musicians' brief consternation and subsequent understanding providing the anticipatory satisfaction that comes to all good pranksters.

This is the Colony Theatre's 38th season. Please support the company in some way. For it to go under would be no joke.