Mengelberg and Mahler by Daniel Klein. Directed by Emile Fallaux.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Robert Lohbauer as Mengelberg; photo: Kevin Sprague
In the midnight of his life, living in a chalet he had built for himself in Switzerland, the Dutch-born German conductor Willem Mengelberg waits out his final years in exile. For years the artistic force behind Amsterdamís Concertgebauw Orchestra, a champion of the music of Gustav Mahler who was his close friend, Mengelberg defied traditions to bring the finest music of the unknown composers, expatriates, Jews, Russians, and so on, into the bright lights of public exposure. It seems he made one major mistake: he underestimated the difficulty that would follow his not abandoning his post during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands; he didnít understand how the public and how his own native government would assess his actions.
For him, music was different from other "things." Music was not national, music was a force, an emotion, a means of enrichment that all could share equally, an entity that had no politics. As the world learned subsequent to World War II, music could express so much more than just its own internal beauties, darknesses and emotional accessibilities. Wagner was banned from performance in America and other countries when it was discovered how strong a role his music had played in the Nazi psyche, for example.
In 1945 the Central Honorary Council for Art determined that for his attitude during the occupation the council would impose a sentence which forbade Mengelberg to ever conduct in The Netherlands again. He found that others were reluctant to hire him. He had conducted his orchestra - depleted of Jews and other undesirables by the occupation forces - and made guest appearances in Germany and other occupied countries. His actions were seen as overtly political. After a long struggle and two legal cases, on the 20th of October 1947 he received a reduction of his sentence from a life-time ban to one of six years, until 1951. He died in that year, never to have made his return to his extraordinary music career.
On stage at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, Daniel Kleinís one-man play, Mengelberg and Mahler, finds the elderly man alone in his mountain retreat, working his way through the logic that has removed him from the one thing that gives him pleasure, satisfaction and a true picture of his place in the world.
He relives key moments, conversations, relationships both professional and personal, and even times on the podium. In 85 minutes of internal torture, the composer lives out the angst-filled months of 1947.
He is played with lyric sensitivity by Robert Lohbauer. While the actor seemingly knows and understands the inner and outer conflicts of the person, he is also not a conductor of Mahler. There is a lot of underscore music in this play, excerpts from the first 5 symphonies and Lohabuer acts his way around and through them brilliantly. As good as he is at the character and the Dutch accent, he is flawed to that same degree in his mock conducting and that diminishes his work and the characterís ultimate believability. This is too bad, really, for the play is very well wrought and his acting in the role is equally fascinating.
Director Emile Fallaux has given his actor the stage and moved him through a remarkable number of emotional and moral changes. It is clear that his sensitivity to the piece is almost super-charged with honesty and clarity. There are a few moments where the conductorís sanity is challenged and Fallaux has either allowed or led his actor into subtleties that play out extremely well.
Lighting designer Stephen Ball has provided a dim view for most of the intense evening and it is within the darkness of Mengelbergís brain that we find the man. This point of view is sometimes disquieting for the actor is distanced from us.
Playing throughout the season this is a play that will grow as the actor continues to don the trappings of this frustrated human being who only did what he thought was right and never truly understood that what he did was something the world would find so very wrong. In 1946 he wrote a friend, "If I had done something I could understand it, but I never got involved in anything!" That was his problem and on stage in Lenox he is working through that logic, hoping to make his way back into what had always been his personal world. I think watching him do it is an important part of this summerís activities.
Mengelberg and Mahler plays in repertory through September 10, 2010 on the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre stage at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA. For performance schedules, ticket availabilities and prices call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go to their website at www.shakespeare.org.