Otterbein Humor in Music Festival to Delight, March 27- April 1

Composer, bassist and music educator Jon Deak is guest composer for Otterbein University's Humor in Music Festival, March 27-April 1.(Photo: Jon Deak)
Composer, bassist and music educator Jon Deak is guest composer for Otterbein University's Humor in Music Festival, March 27-April 1.(Photo: Jon Deak)

Imagine this scenario: you’re sitting in an opulent concert hall. A pianist walks out on stage wearing tails, bows to the audience, sits down at a shiny, black grand piano and closes his eyes for several moments of intense silence. Then, with all the flair of an outlaw brandishing a pistol, he begins to play “Chopsticks.”

Surprising, right? A little over the top. You might even say a bit funny.

Composer and former New York Philharmonic Associate Principal Double Bassist Jon Deak says surprises, dislocated meanings, artistic puns and other examples of “the unexpected” are what humor in concert music is all about.

“Humor kind of jars or shocks the listener in a way that kind of opens new avenues,” Deak said recently in a phone interview. “It creates the unexpected, and therefore the viewer is a little more open than they would be if they thought they knew what was coming. I mean, what is a joke, really? A joke is the unexpected. You expect a certain resolution, and then suddenly it’s a different punchline. The same thing can happen in concert music.”

Deak will explore these and other meanings and contexts of humor in classical music as guest composer for Otterbein University’s Humor in Music Festival, March 27-April 1. Otterbein faculty and students will perform works by Deak and other composers in a series of concerts of jazz, vocal music, chamber music and orchestral music aimed to surprise and delight. Classical 101 will be there, too, when I explore the broad spectrum of humor in music in a presentation entitled “Is Music Funny?” at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 30 at Riley Auditorium of Otterbein University’s Battelle Fine Arts Center. I will also serve as Master of Ceremonies for concerts at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 39 and Monday, March 31 at Riley Auditorium.

Other festival events include a Saturday morning open rehearsal of the Westerville Symphony, followed by a discussion between Deak and Westerville Symphony Music Director Peter Stafford Wilson; a Saturday evening concert by the Westerville Symphony; and a Monday-afternoon panel discussion with Deak and other guest composers on “Approaching Humor in Music.”

Deak, whose works Condominiums on the Hot StoveAuditionThe Wager at the Eldorado Saloon, and Bye, Bye, among others, will be performed over the course of the festival, says although audiences tend to find his music humorous, he doesn’t aim to compose “funny” music. However, he does aim to achieve the unexpected, which can be funny. With Condominiums on the Hot Stove, Deak says he aimed to put a familiar tune (“Home on the Range”) in a very different context, much like how Charles Ives had done decades earlier in his Variations on America, and much like how surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp had done by displaying familiar objects – like bicycle wheels and urinals – in unusual contexts.

“I didn’t want to title the piece just Home on the Range. I was trying to displace it a little bit more,” Deak said. “I wasn’t thinking of it in the sense of humorous, I just wanted to displace it. Like Duchamp’s ready-made sculpture: you don’t expect some item of furniture, even from the bathroom, to be displayed as a sculpture. It displaces your expectation. I just wanted to play with (Home on the Range) and have fun with it. So, I love the unexpected.”

And for Deak, conveying the unexpected includes not only writing the element of surprise into the notes of a musical work, but also performing a work in a theatrically effective way.

“It depends so much on the performer. If the performer can believe what he/she is doing and put it across, sometimes they can not only put the audience in a spell, but they, the performer, can actually bring new meanings to a piece, new levels of interpretation.”

To that end, Deak will coach the performers in the concerts on Otterbein’s Humor in Music Festival on how to deliver their musical performances, much the same way a stand-up comic practices delivering a joke.

“I think there’s a vast area of theatrical ability that is largely untapped in (classical music) performers,” Deak said. “One of the biggest pleasures to me, besides composing, is figuring out how to make a piece work.”

And until the festival’s opening concert begins at 8 this evening, we’ll be waiting for the punchline.

For more information about the events and performances on Otterbein University’s Humor in Music Festival, visit Otterbein University and the Westerville Symphony.

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