Bach at Leipzig

Bach at Leipzig, by Itamar Moses.

Directed by Heike Hambley.

Friday-Sunday, April 17-May 10, and Thursday, May 6. Thursday-Saturday performances, 8 pm. Sunday performances, 2 pm.

Bach at Leipzig is a kind of pushmepullyou of a play (hats off to Doctor Doolittle), a witty comedy about music and ambition whose front half is high comedy and whose nether half is low farce. In 1722, six musicians meet in the anteroom to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas’s Cathedral) in the German city of Leipzig. They are there to audition for the newly vacated post of organist and head of the chapel music school. The candidates dance around each other, seeking advantage in a deadly battle of wits and wiles. Two, maybe a third, are of noble birth: one a blustering but insecure prig, the second a spoiled brat, and the third a credulous old fool. The others are base born: one is an idealistic musical ‘revolutionary,’ the second the frustrated organist at Leipzig’s second best church, the third a penniless conman and trickster who lives (not very well) solely by his wits. But then a seventh candidate arrives. He is Georg Phillip Telemann, acclaimed by all as the Greatest Organist in Germany. Can any of the others defeat him? And if he is vanquished, who shall win the prize instead? An orgy of backbiting and intrigue ensues.

What follows is a hilarious comic fugue: the same situations appear and reappear; the same lines are said, then resaid; alliances are formed and broken as the musicians dance around each other. (Telemann, of course, is above such maneuverings.) An eighth candidate appears at the last minute. His name is Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach. (To confuse matters, all of the characters in the play are named Johann or Georg. And serendipitously, all but one of the actors who play the roles at the Prospect are named David or Daniel in real life.) Careening from rapier wit to broad physical comedy, Bach is a constant surprise. And above the talk and activity, there is the music, the glorious fugues, toccatas and passacaglias of Bach, acknowledged by his successors to be the greatest composer in an age of many, many great composers.

The Prospect’s artistic director Heike Hambley has assembled an exciting mixture of Prospect veterans and newcomers to present this delightful and thought provoking play for the first time in Modesto.

Bach at Leipzig. The Prospect Theater Project. Friday-Sunday, April 17-May 10, and Thursday, May 6. Thursday-Saturday performances, 8 pm. Sunday performances, 2 pm.