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Gilpin as Brahms' Muse

by Kathryn Boughton

Veteran New Milford actor Jack Gilpin is not a musician. But recently he found himself on stage, surrounded by world-class musicians, and distracted by it as he prepared for his role in An Unlikely Muse, A Staged Biographical Drama of Brahms’ Late Years.

“There is an indescribable pleasure in being on stage rehearsing right next to this great, great music,” he said. “There is a tactile, physical pleasure in being in the music. I had to force myself to concentrate.”

The musical “portrait” of Johannes Brahms is based on the unexpected influence 19th-century clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld had on the composer and was brought to fruition by cellist Harry Clark.

An Unlikely Muse debuted July 29th in Portland, Oregon, and will be presented in Connecticut Saturday, August 13th at 8PM at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. Gilpin will play Mühlfeld, while clarinetist David Shifrin, pianist Melvin Chen, cellist Mihai Marica and the Argus Quartet will participate in the performance.

Playwright Clark, formerly of Connecticut, and his pianist wife, Sanda Schuldmann, co-founded Chamber Music PLUS in 1980 to rewrite conceptions about concert presentations. Now living in Tuscon, Arizona, he will return to the Nutmeg State to present the 40th “portrait” in his Rhythms of Life series.

“Classical music audiences are aging and are not being replaced by younger people,” Clark said. “It’s not the music, but way the way it is presented. This is a new way to meld theater and music.”

Clark said Brahms, then 57, retired after completion of his String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Opus 111. But when he heard Mühlfeld play, Brahms was captivated by the quality of Mühlfeld’s performance. He set aside retirement plans to write the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and the Clarinet Sonatas for Mühlfeld.

Mühlfeld became the composer’s close friend and it is through his words (as read by Gilpin) that we learn about Brahms and his world. “It was Brahms’ last flowering,” said Clark. “It is a beautiful, touching story.”

Clark has worked with many noted actors of note over the years. The roster includes, among others, Edward Herrmann, Keir Dullea, Hayley Mills, Stephanie and Efrem Zimbalist, Talia Shire, Lou Gossett Jr., Michael York and Lynn Redgrave. Now, Jack Gilpin joins this pantheon with his performance.

“I had seen Jack act and knew he was wonderful,” said Clark.

Gilpin, who is also an Episcopal priest at St. John’s in New Milford, said the process has provided insights into music he did not have before. “I just had to scramble to catch up,” he said.

Gilpin’s performance consists of reading Mühlfeld’s part while seated near the musicians. “It’s not really a staged reading,” he said. “I am seated at a music stand, wearing a dark suit. It’s not a full production and there is little interaction with the musicians and no dialogue—it is a narrative monologue being told by a character. The piece itself is a wonderful story.”

Gilpin is enjoying his return to the stage, a circumstance increasingly rare since he was ordained. “I came to New York right after college in the mid-’70s,” he said. “I went to acting school and appeared Off Broadway and in many regional productions. Eventually, I appeared on television and the movies—I had a recurring role in Law & Order and on Kate & Allie.”

Moving to Roxbury, he worked with the Hartford Stage Company. At the same time, his faith was becoming central to his life. “I had been away from the church for years,” he said, “but in New York it all started to make sense to me.” In Roxbury, he started divinity school part time, eventually earning a Master’s degree. “It took me seven years with nothing in mind other than to learn,” he said.

There was no turning back. He preached for several years as a lay minister before a parishioner observed, “When are you going to do something about this because you have a calling.”

He was ordained in New Milford, December 14th, 2014. “There are things I used to do that I don’t want to do any more,” he said. “I don’t do television and movies since I became a priest and this is the first theater I have done in four years.”

For tickets, which range in price from $30 to $100, visit the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival website, linked below.