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Beethoven's Wig

TURNING CLASSICAL MUSIC ON ITS HEAD

May 19, 2006

TURNING CLASSICAL MUSIC ON ITS HEAD
Who is this Beethoven, and why do we keep trying to make him roll over?

Take Richard Perlmutter. In 2002, he released "Beethoven's Wig: Sing Along Symphonies," a children's recording that set laugh-out- loud lyrics to a collection of classical music's best-known works. "Beethoven's wig / Is very big," Perlmutter sings on its title track, which is set to the composer's Fifth Symphony.

"When that line popped into my head -- 'Beethoven's wig is very big' -- I thought it was interesting," Perlmutter says. "The wig is kind of a symbol for classical music, and musicians are often called longhairs." He pauses. "And it's silly."

The disc's comic take on the classical canon resonated with listeners. "A week after it was out I was on NPR, and then a couple months later I was on the 'Today Show,' and that was the first time I had done a live performance." Along with its sequel, "Beethoven's Wig 2: More Sing Along Symphonies," the CD has garnered more than 30 awards, including two Grammy nominations, and has topped both classical and children's album charts.

Perlmutter, a Los Angeles advertising executive who wrote music for radio and television before "Beethoven's Wig" became a full- time job, still seems bemused by the disc's success. "It's just so cool," he says.

His songs are funny, but Perlmutter is not just a highbrow "Weird Al" Yankovic. The lyrics are hummable mnemonics, each imparting information about the work or its composer. "It makes the songs less random when the lyrics have to do with the pieces," Perlmutter says. "I would never sing, 'Go to the library, you'll really learn!' "

Parents aren't the only adult demographic enamored of the discs. "I think people sometimes think of classical music -- either players or composers -- as maybe either stuffy or somehow sequestered in concert halls and practice rooms," he says, "but they just seem to love this."

Perlmutter, along with four of the vocalists who appear on the CDs, will perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday in Baltimore. "You've heard me, so I'm not going to brag about my own singing," he says, "but the others are just astounding." Although Perlmutter frequently sings with smaller ensembles -- pianists, string quartets -- this is only his third appearance with a full orchestra. "To perform with an orchestra is just amazing," he says. "It's so much fun!"

The concert marks the release this month of "Beethoven's Wig 3." It differs markedly from its predecessors, each of its tracks highlighting the sound of a particular instrument rather than the work's composer. The concept necessitated looking outside classical music's Top 40 for material. "It was really, really fun because, first of all, some of those instruments don't get featured that often, and it was challenging to find a piece that would really express what the instrument was all about," Perlmutter says. "A really large part of it was finding [a work] that said, 'This is what the harpsichord means to me' or 'This is how a clarinet speaks to me.' "

Among Perlmutter's favorite tracks is "Play My Song," based on a little-known Beethoven work for mandolin. "Even people who know a lot about classical music aren't familiar with that piece," he says. "A lot of them don't even know that he wrote mandolin pieces." The lyrics tell a true story. "Beethoven was quite a, I don't know if 'womanizer' is the right word, but he was always chasing women. This woman was above his station in life, but he made a play for her anyway. She was an amateur mandolin player, so he wrote these pieces and dedicated them to her." She was apparently unmoved, and the composer never wrote another piece for mandolin.

The first of many planned books complementing the CDs, "Beethoven's Wig: Read Along Symphonies," came out late last year. Its whimsical illustrations by Maria Rosetti -- interwoven with the score of Beethoven's Fifth -- capture the lyrics' loopy imagery. "Most books about music have the actual music at the end," Perlmutter says. "I thought it would be really neat to try and integrate the music into the book." He says his other songs will make for more conventional narratives. "This first book was very, very tricky because it's not really a story. This book is more of a fantasy, a wig experience."

Beethoven's wig is big all right -- and getting bigger. "I'm working on 'Beethoven's Wig 4' right now," Perlmutter says. "I've sworn not to tell what it's about, but it's somewhat thematic as well."

Three albums in, you wouldn't think any classical work would be impervious to Perlmutter's ability as a lyricist. But he says there are pieces that remain beyond his reach. "There are some that are really hard -- like 'The Flight of the Bumblebee,' " he says. "I've tried to kind of mess with that, and it may . . . end up being on the album. I don't know, but I don't know how to attack it yet.

"I don't think I can sing every note, that's for sure."

BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA WITH BEETHOVEN'S WIG CREATOR RICHARD PERLMUTTER AND GUESTS Saturday at 11 at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore. $12. 410-783-8100. baltimoresymphony.org.

by Nicole Arthur, The Washington Post

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updated: 4 years ago