‘33 Variations’ explores Beethoven’s music, personal struggles

Why would Beethoven, one of the most influential composers who ever lived, spend much of his final years creating nearly three-dozen variations on a waltz penned by a minor composer?
This question obsesses musicologist Katherine Brandt, the protagonist of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations. The play, which made its Broadway debut in 2009, is being presented by the local theater company Ophelia’s Jump in conjunction with Pomona College.
It is, indeed, a fascinating story. Music publisher Anton Diabelli challenged numerous noted composers to adapt his waltz—which Katherine considers mediocre—as part of a publishing scheme. At first, Beethoven refused to take the musical dare but, once he changed his mind, the waltz and all of the possibilities it presented became one of the ailing composer’s chief preoccupations. He went on to create not just one composition but a suite of 33 variations, which famed music writer Donald Tovey called “the greatest set of variations ever written.”
Katherine is so curious about this remarkable turnabout that she leaps at the chance to travel to Bonn, Germany to examine Beethoven’s notebooks firsthand. Her choice to undertake the journey would normally be a no-brainer, considering that she is an impassioned Beethoven scholar. It is complicated, however, by the fact that she has been diagnosed with swiftly progressing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Anticipating an inexorable physical deterioration, her daughter Clara begs her not to go but Katherine is undeterred. What follows is a theatrical tapestry depicting a present-day musicologist searching for truth and an 18th century composer following an unpredictable but inspired muse against all odds.
Dancing amid the music, Beethoven’s variations presented quite literally by gifted pianist Vernon Snyder, is how Clara faces her mother’s mortality while Katherine comes to terms with her daughter’s free-spirited choices and resultant “mediocrity.”
Now in its second season, Ophelia’s Jump is proving to be a rich addition to Claremont’s cultural scene. The casting of 33 Variations is impeccable and, under the fine direction of Ophelia’s Jump co-founder Caitlin Lopez, Mr. Kaufman’s play and the musical world of 18th century Germany spring to life.
Veteran actress Vicky Dawson Irvine is particularly affecting in her turn as Katherine, a driven academic who, it seems, must literally lose control of her body before she can order to let go of her rigid views. Her physical transformation, from poised scholar to a woman who must struggle to walk, speak and even swallow is wrenching.
William Gillian as Beethoven is every inch the musical genius, tormented by tinnitus and failing hearing as well as an array of health problems but beguiled by the heavenly sounds of the music in his mind.
Other standouts include Max Herzfeld as Beethoven’s beleaguered but faithful servant Schindler and Rich Briggs as Diabelli, who as a businessman is impatient to get Beethoven’s variations in hand but as a diehard music lover knows that whatever the composer is creating is worth the wait.
Ann Thomas shines as Dr. Gertrude Ladenbarger, custodian of the library where Beethoven’s works are housed. She exudes a compelling combination of reverence for Beethoven, concern for the physical and emotional struggles of Katherine and her daughter and the famous German restraint. And Lea Trank’s Clarea epitomizes emotional openness and spiritedness, qualities that serve her well in this difficult time, even as they underline her mother’s determinedly cool exterior. The cast is rounded out by Joe Martone as nurse Mike Clark, who helps ground the Brandt family in the often grim reality of ALS while capturing Clara’s heart.
Timing is everything in the theater, and the medical storyline of 33 Variations couldn’t be more timely. At the start of a matinee last Sunday, Ophelia’s Jump co-founder Beatrice Casagran shared that the company had selected 33 Variations for its season starter months before the “Ice Bucket Challenge” went viral at the start of this summer, promoting awareness and raising money for the fight against ALS.
Not only did the theater company undertake the challenge, soaking themselves with icy water and then donating money to the ALS Association. A basket was placed next to the snacks sold during the intermission, where guests could opt to make a donation to the organization.
School board member Hilary LaConte was one of the 55 theater-supporting Curtain Raisers in attendance at Sunday’s performance of 33 Variations held in Pomona College’s Allen Theatre. She praised the intimacy of the venue as well as the performance itself.
“The play gives you the ability to listen to the story behind Beethoven’s writing of 33 Variations, listen to the piano and listen for the variations,” Ms. LaConte said.
“I loved the way the professor is collecting data, looking at history and trying to figure things out,” she continued. “She starts with one hypothesis and ends up with another. I like seeing the scientific process played out in the field of music.”    
Katherine can be abrasive at times, but Ms. LaConte said she was able to identify with the gutsy protagonist.
“She was a professional woman struggling to maintain her life,” she said. “It would be so hard to let that go.”
The community will not have to let go of the talents of Ophelia’s Jump anytime soon. At the performance, it was announced that the company will again present its Midsummer Night’s Shakespeare Festival at Pomona College’s Greek Theater next summer, with performances of The Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra in the works.
Performances of 33 Variations will continue this weekend, September 12 through September 14, with performances set for Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Shows are held in the Allen Studio Theater at Pomona College, 300 E. Bonita Ave. in Claremont.
Tickets are $25 general admission and $22 for students and seniors and can be purchased online at www.opheliasjump.org. For more information, call (909) 624-1464.
—Sarah Torribio


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