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“Simply” sym-funny: Classical concert delivers laughs

FARGO — Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra patrons may hear more challenging, thought-provoking works this season, but they won't have as much fun as they will at today's concert as Saturday night's show put the funny in the symphony.

Pardon the pun, but after an evening of Peter Schickele humor, it’s hard not to keep laughing.

Though he never stepped on stage, the composer was the star of the show as the FMSO gave his brand new piece, “Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra!” a vivid performance.

Technically, the piece was by P.D.Q. Bach, the long lost son of Johann Sebastian Bach, or rather, the brainchild of Schickele, who graduated from Fargo Central High School. His fictional foil — who was conceived on a visit to town in the 1950s — allows the composer to poke fun at classical music convention and the results tickled the funnybones of those in Festival Concert Hall.

Pianist Jeffrey Biegel was the right fit in the main role, playing for laughs while hitting all of the right notes on the keyboard. It was the part he was meant to play, as he commissioned the work, with various symphonies co-sponsoring the writing. Biegel is as deft on the keys as he is with slapstick, mugging for the crowd, pretending to be sleeping, or impatiently waiting to play. When he did play, it was, well, “Simply Grand.”

While anyone can make jokes about how stuffy classical music can be, what makes Schickele such a gem is his seamless blending of the serious and the spoof. He doesn’t sacrifice sophistication for satire. Schickele laughs at what he loves. He throws shade at Mozart and Haydn and breaks an homage to Mozart into a boogie-woogie.

For the performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals,” the FMSO tapped Theatre B’s Pam Strait to deliver Schickele’s comical narration, which she did with a grace and good timing. The music still stood on its own with Biegel and Jay Hershberger rising above pianist punchlines, Tom Christianson rocking the xylophones on “Fossils” and cellist Greg Hamilton playing the beautiful “Swan” melody.

The night’s other stand-out was young artist Gabrielle Halliday leading the symphony through Derek Bourgeois’ rousing “Trombone Concerto Op. 114.” Seriously, how much fun was it to see and hear a trombonist take center-stage, much less one in a formal gown.

Schickele, 81, sat in the front row for the show and took a bow with the well-deserved standing ovation at show’s end. It was wonderful to see him embraced for a lifetime of helping people laugh at and love good music.

What: FMSO Masterworks IV

When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday

Where: Reineke Fine Arts Center, NDSU

Info: Tickets from $30 to $50,, (701) 478-3676.