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Reviews and a Playlist: 33 Variations at Theatre Three

by Anne Bothwell 7 Oct 2010 11:15 AM

Wrapping up the reviews, and critics’ suggestions on which recordings of Diabelli Variations you might want to check out.


Coming to classical music as an adult can be challenging. It can feel like you’ve missed the boat if you didn’t have violin lessons at 3, grow up attending the symphony, or take a lot of music survey classes in college.  So I especially appreciate productions like Theatre Three’s  33 Variations for helping me think a little bit more about music, in this case, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

Between 1819 and 1823,  the composer  wrote 33 variations on a waltz composed by music publisher Anton Diabelli.  The play 33 Variations, by Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project, I Am My Own Wife) is about a Beethoven scholar who is obsessed with figuring out why Beethoven noodled so hard over what she considers a simple, schmaltzy waltz.  [eds note: As Jac so gently points out in the comments, Kaufman did not write I am My Own Wife.]

Read the reviews above.  The extra bonus for me was Clark Griffith, anchored on stage at piano throughout the performance, playing excerpts of the variations. Griffith won third place in the 2007 Van Cliburn Outstanding Amateurs competition.

A fugue, a waltz, a march; varying four notes, shifting keys and tempos: As leads Sharon Garrison (playing Katherine Brandt) or R Bruce Elliott (Beethoven) discuss what goes into creating the variations or how they differ or what Beethoven may have been thinking about at the time he created them, Griffith gives the audio examples.

It made me think more deeply about what I was hearing than I would have just coming cold to a performance of the piece.  And it also made me want to hear the work in its entirety. There are only snippets performed and, as Lawson mentions in his review, the variations are played out of order.  But here’s another problem with getting to know classical music: there are always SOOO many recordings to choose from.

So yesterday, I emailed Lawson, Scott Cantrell at the DMN and Olin Chism, who often reviews classical music for us at Art&Seek, and asked all three for their favorite recordings of Diabelli Variations:

Olin Chism: “I like the performance of William Grant Naboré but it’s on a Swiss label (Doron) and may not be easy to find.”

Scott Cantrell: “I really like the recent Diane Walsh recording on the small JDR label — JDR-1006. Just checked Amazon, and it is available. (For what it’s worth, she was a finalist in the 1969 Cliburn Competition.)”

Lawson Taitte: “I’d recommend Piotr Anderszewski on Virgin Classics or Stephen Kovacevich on Onyx.”

Lawson also pointed out that Diane Walsh is the one who performed the pieces in the Broadway production of 33 Variations. So that’s the one I’m going with.  Unless of course, you have a favorite I should consider.

  • Dear Anne:

    I’m so pleased with your reaction to our production, “33 Variations” — getting you all energized about owning a complete recording of the masterwork. What’s going to please you even more, I think, as you listen is to realize you heard ALL of 29 of the 33 played by Clark in the show — the “snippets” you referred to as being played are all from the SKETCHES Beethoven wrote before he wrote the final versions heard in and between the scenes. Those never-heard-outside-the-play sketches are so amazing to hear, in my view: such a rare chance for a non-scholar-music-appreciator to enjoy.

    Moises Kaufman, the playwright, may be pleased you cited him as author of “I Am My Own Wife”, but my friend, and Dallas’ own Doug Wright, who won a Pulitzer for that authorship, may feel slighted. Kaufman directed Doug’s play. Kaufman did write “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”, the play Theatre Three produced giving Kaufman his Dallas debut 98-99 season.

    And of course there’s all the plot of the play to enjoy that is so illuminated by the variations. I think Kaufman’s achievement in creating the plot, characters and dilemmas in this work are brilliantly tied to the selections (which, despite Lawson’s mild grumbling are not performed THAT out of order!). Clark made enormous contributions during the rehearsal period and enabled us to use more of the variations in our production than the Broadway script indicated.

    Our Beethoven, R Bruce Elliott, had a phone conversation with pianist Diane Walsh whose recording you’ve ordered. Ms. Walsh will be playing in the Los Angeles production (with Jane Fonda) coming up in the spring. She loves this way of performing the variations and, like here, she reports that the scene in the play where Beethoven seems to “dictate” the 32nd variation — conducting, singing, ordering tempos and keys, etc. always got a huge response from the audience. Thanks for coming.

    JAC ALDER, director-designer of Theatre Three’s “33 Variations”

  • Anne Bothwell

    Hey Jac,
    Thanks so much for your nice response – and gentle correction. Making the fix about Moises/I am My Own Wife, in the original post. And appreciate your more detailed insights! Lots here for music lovers -from the most novice to the most educated – to appreciate.

  • scott clamp

    Mr. Alder,

    I am T3 subscriber and I have not before seen such a fabulous play. With its intricate music, multi-threaded conversational acting, impeccable attention to detail, and innovative staging, “33 Variation” sets the bar very high.

    You produced and directed a thoroughly modern play! All the best devices of music, dancing, and soliloquy all interwoven to create a sum greater that its individual parts.

    Jac, you should be very proud of everyone involved – including the stage hand that wets the umbrella – we all like our foreshadowing to have some sort of realism. Congratulations to all! Bravo! Well done!