Magnus Martensson in Bistro Awards
Magnus Martensson was born in Sweden and studied piano, composition, and conducting in both Sweden and the U.S. He came by his easy, off-the-wall humor as naturally as he came by the frizzy mop of blond hair on his head. That hair might well be an outward symbol of the wacky thoughts that are obviously careening around inside the head beneath it, and that come bursting out of his mouth with entertaining regularity.
In his recent show at Don’t Tell Mama, Martensson combined obvious talent as a classical musician with gentle physical humor, doled out at just the right moments─as in a bit about picking the pockets of audience members as he entered through the house, producing wallet after wallet after wallet as he confessed to this peculiar weakness. The show itself took the form of a music lecture, which proved as ideal a source of humor as it did decades before for the great Victor Borge and Anna Russell. He announced that he’d committed to this engagement at the last minute, after a much more lucrative engagement in a European concert hall fell through. Apparently this is a recurring situation in his career, so he always double books. Due to the suddenness of the venue change, he forgot his music across the sea; fortunately, he produced a “pile of music” he’d found in the Don’t Tell Mama dressing room. This set-up allowed the already loose and ramshackle repertoire to become even more hilariously arbitrary.
Informing the audience that the club had a very special Yamaha piano with an 89th and 90th key at the top and bottom of the board, he played Rachmaninoff’s “Romance in C” utilizing the extra notes to painfully funny effect. Next in the stack of music was “When the Saints Go Marching In” (traditional hymn), which he played on pennywhistle. He also whistled and played violin at various times in the show, sometimes simultaneously with the piano, most memorably on “Over the Rainbow” (Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg).
He revealed the difference between actual Mozart pieces and “Mozart forgeries” and tried to teach the room how to differentiate between the end of a piece and the end of a movement so they would know when to applaud and when to remain silent. Giving up, he decided to give a quick “okay” sign with his fingers to let us know when we should clap. This got funnier each time he did it, and he did it regularly for the rest of the show. Claiming that a number was in 15/8, he challenged the audience to clap along in time and then chided them when they failed miserably.
The biggest set piece was an investigation of the origins of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” He revealed that the composer had many failed liaisons with various women leading up to the “true love” he found with Elise, and each affair inspired a variation on the tune. First there was “Für Marybeth,” which ended almost instantaneously, as had the relationship. “Für Carmelita,” named for a Spanish accountant, honored her origins with a flamenco arrangement. The woman who inspired “Für Lillian” was allergic to “E” so he played the piece without it; soon came allergies to “A” and “C” as well, so there was little left to actually play. Then there was “Für Secretary,” played like typing. This all led to the real love of his life, Elise. After all the satiric playing, Martensson managed to invest the actual piece with a palpable romantic longing while not entirely leaving the humor behind. It was a lovely wind-up to a wild concept.
For his encore, he recited a “backwards poem”─surreal and, once again, simultaneously funny and moving, innocent and knowing. This provided one of my favorite moments of the whole show─a tiny, but telling moment: the pained look on his face as he finds he must rhyme “Vegas” and “Degas”. Not a big guffaw, certainly, but I loved it.
Whether doing a Viking folk tune, a Venetian barcarole, or “Happy Birthday,” he played in a style similar to the way he delivered his lines: charmingly tentative but always in control, and slowly, subtly building to delightful pay-offs. There is no one quite like Magnus Martensson. Seeing him provided an hour of unanticipated delight.
Don’t Tell Mama – September 10