"The Culmination and the Fire" 

—Exploring the conductor's art in David Katz's one-man play.


 

 

"Everyone has talent....

What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark places where it leads."

—Erica Jong

       If what Erica Jong writes is true, Maestro David Katz must have been to some very dark places. The internationally renowned composer and conductor has talent coming out of his fingertips. MUSE of FIRE (which he wrote and performs) tells of his tutelage under the towering personality of legendary conductor, Charles Bruck (1911-1995) and lays bare the black art of the classical maestro. Katz studied under Bruck at the world-renowned Pierre Monteux Conducting School in Maine. He not only survived the experience but isn't afraid to relive it on stage.


       It's often so easy to forget the quality of the small and well-crafted endeavor of the one-man play...One actor has to make the whole thing work in a meaningful sense for an audience that has only a single individual to focus on. Happily, MUSE of FIRE delivers the goods and then some.


       The play follows Katz's relationship with Bruck from his student days to Bruck's death and beyond. In the beginning Katz hates the man. Later he shows what he learned from the maestro. Finally he explains why he came to love and respect him...But as the avuncular-looking Katz wanders on stage and calmly sits down to pull on a pair of red sneakers, it's easy to let doubt creep in. What is here that can live up to the promise of searing passion and personal insight?


       Any such doubts are soon blasted away. The red shoes, a symbol of the clownish way that Bruck used to dress, the portrait of the little Hungarian who never lost his accent and whose lisp encouraged unashamed spittle, suddenly bursts into an eruption of unforgiving fury and fire. Katz drags his audience into the first of several humiliating and intense teaching sessions with Bruck where the spit and the vitriol fly in equal amounts. A scene called "The Wagner and the Shouting" shows how Bruck could tear someone apart until they had no sense of self. Bruck mauls his pupils' raw emotions and hammers them into honesty or tosses them aside. His uncompromising quest for the heart and guts of his students is savage and exhausting. When Katz enacts how his fellows huddled together during a brief interval in the lesson, it's a welcome chance for the audience to also catch its collective breath.


       Bruck was a man who would never have fitted into today's cozy world where treating students with respect or teaching through kindness and positive affirmation is the expected norm. He is a compelling fury of the arrogant refusal to be mediocre, and we find ourselves sympathetic to his passionate desire to create excellence. The force of his character is staggering.


       Uncompromising and frustrating personalities seem to carry drama around with them: they are frightening and intimidating - but they are intensely attractive. This is what Katz draws out gradually, making the towering personality of Bruck so compelling. He flips back and forth between his own geniality and his alter-ego’s frustrated passion at a disquieting pace. It's almost scary to see the juxtaposition of the amiable Katz and the intolerable Bruck and it's brilliantly uncomfortable to watch. As the performance continues he becomes more and more Bruck and leaves himself behind. The actor/author is hugely entertaining as Bruck and peppers his diabolic invective with real humor, so that the audience giggles with a freedom presumably not enjoyed by Bruck's students. One step removed from the original experience, the maestro's bitchy comments are funny— horrifyingly, shockingly funny.


       All of Bruck’s fury, his refusal to accept anything less than what can be dragged from within, the exquisite search for the conductor's hands to be “the wing tips of the soul,” is bellowed at the audience: “Feel something!” With these words, Katz and Bruck become one in their exhortation to us. This is the culmination and the fire.

 
       Katz shows a wonderful ability to use words in the play. Their sheer dynamism is never more powerful than when used for Bruck's actions, intentions and invective. Katz constructs a stunning verbal momentum throughout the performance. His journey of initial revulsion to unyielding veneration is most poignantly expressed by the students’ performance of the French national anthem outside Bruck’s home as he lay dying. Bruck, with his own sense of theater, had made a tradition out of conducting it every Bastille Day. His students played it to honor the life of their difficult and inspiring master.


       Although he was obviously an incredibly tricky personality, Bruck is also relatively easy to bring to life on stage. Katz's self-portrayal is a little more complex. The aspiring conductor is not completely sympathetic— he has his own ego, which is probably what drove him on through the minefield of Bruck's invective. His ego is coupled with fear and embarrassment. The portrait reminds us that this is a play about real people, and that gives MUSE of FIRE even more power...


       It's said that the greatest show on earth is that which offers human emotion. MUSE of FIRE is a great show. It's about many things, but at its heart beats the need for emotional honesty in the core of every true artist. The play has it all: humor, fear, ritual humiliation, love, growth, redemption and an unforgettable powerhouse of a main character. The emotions aren't simple, the relationships can't be sorted out and boxed up neatly and the people portrayed are real and imperfect and unfinished. In a world where the spectacle of lavish musical productions from Broadway to American Idol is thrown in our faces relentlessly, MUSE of FIRE is an intense and satisfying study of the power of conviction. The play is about what great music deserves, it's about respect and yes, it's about courage.


       MUSE of FIRE will leave you feeling exhilarated, relieved that it didn't happen to you, but wishing fervently that it had. Katz shows us that to know such people as the mighty Bruck may seem horrible, terrifying and exhausting, but above all it is a privilege.


      MUSE was originally directed by Tony-Award winner Charles Nelson Reilly. Katz credits him with making "theatrical sense" of his story and inspiring the style of his performance. Known by many for his frequent television appearances, Reilly was also a highly respected Broadway actor and director. His one-man play, Save it for the Stage: The Life of Reilly, is ranked by critics among the greatest single-actor evenings of theater.

—Fiona Templar, Hats Off!, 
The Newspaper of the Arts (CT)