Nov. 3 2010 12:00 AM

It’s Debussy night at Absolute Music



Velvet-voiced actor/director Ken Beachler and perfectionist piano man Sergei Kvitko have a strangely compelling musical partnership.

Suave cop, intense cop? Honey and salt?

Their chemistry is hard to pin down.

Picture Noel Coward, bon vivant and comedy genius, working with brooding Russian piano genius Sviatoslav Richter, and you come close.

“We just seem like one,” Kvitko said. “Ken is an extension of me.”

To put it another way, Beachler is the bait and Kvitko is the sinker. When they spin a tale in music and words, the hook slips in fast.

On Friday, they’ll bring their unique synergy to Old Town’s hit chamber music series, Absolute Music, as part of an allstar slate of local musicians honoring the limpid music of French composer Claude Debussy.

The voice/piano duo scored one of the biggest hits of last year’s Absolute Music series with “Babar,” the children’s story set to music by French master Francis Poulenc.

Friday, they hope to do it again with “Toy Box,” a deceptively light confection by another French Impressionist master.

The “Toy Box” plot is light: In a Parisian toy shop, the toys get frisky when nobody is around. They fight, they flirt, they parade around.

There are no charismatic megafauna like Babar in the mix, but the melodies are ravishing and the harmonies rich as whale milk. Debussy didn’t skimp on his musical genius, even in his least known music.

“It’s the goofiest thing ever, but it’s not important, because the music is so gorgeous,” Kvitko said. “It’s unfair that it’s been forgotten.”

An extra frisson awaits Absolute Music fans Friday: “Toy Box” has never been recorded or performed in English before.

“To my knowledge, it’s going to be a world premiere Friday,” he said.

“The piece exists only in a couple of complete sets of Debussy’s piano works. People put it in there with unknown, unpublished, or unfinished works.”

The division of labor between Beachler and Kvitko isn’t as simple as it seems. Beachler, the drama man par excellence, has a voice that oozes with musicality, while Kvitko is a master dramatist on the piano.

The pair first worked together over 10 years ago, in “Master Class,” a Riverwalk Theatre production based on the life of opera diva Maria Callas.

Beachler needed a first-class pianist to appear on stage as a credible accompanist to the Callas character.

It was the “on stage” part that gave Kvitko pause.

“Oh my God, I had a couple of lines,” Kvitko said. He also had to walk across the stage and bring the diva a glass of water.

“I had this recurring nightmare that I would trip and fall and spill it all over the place,” Kvitko said.

After that, Beachler used Kvitko to design sound effects for various productions.

Back then, Kvitko already played “Toy Box,” without narration, as a solo piece. To clue the audience in on the action, Kvitko handed out copies of the stage directions and commentary, but he didn’t like the results.

“People still got confused about what’s going on,” he said.

When “Babar” began to score with audiences, Kvitko decided to dust “Toy Box” with the Beachler magic.

“I love the way it turns out with narration,” Kvitko said. “People will be more engaged, they’ll know what’s going on and connect with the characters.”

“Babar” and “Toy Box” fill a duo CD, recorded and engineered by Kvitko in his Lansing studio, that is scheduled for release Friday.

Friday night’s concert opens with a different kind of toy store: “Songs of Bilitis,” a set of poems about lesbian experiences. (The author, Pierre Louys, originally claimed the poems were written by the Greek poet Sappho.)

“They’re very steamy,” Kvitko said. “They’re not obscene, but they’re quite explicit and quite sensual.”

Debussy’s languorous musical setting will feature Kvitko, flutist Richard Sherman and narrator Beachler.

Kvitko and Michigan State University piano professor Deborah Moriarty will also play some four-hand piano music by Debussy.

They’ll sit down to a grand piano Kvitko calls a “stunner,” donated for this year’s series by Lansing piano retailer and restorer James Reeder.

“I was blown away,” Kvitko said. “That makes a huge difference.”

From a toy shop to Lesbos, “Homage to Debussy” is the kind of thoughtful, exploratory evening of music the series director, Lansing Symphony principal flutist Richard Sherman, envisioned when he started the Absolute Music series last season.

The series caught fire right away, with several sellouts. The combination of top local musicians, unusual programs and an intimate setting scratched Sherman’s itch to drag classical music out of big halls into friendlier, warmer spaces.

Kvitko said the gallery is “perfect” for his forays with Beachler.

“I’d love to sell out a 5,000-seat hall, but first of all, Ken would need a microphone, and that would make it so impersonal,” Kvitko said.

“In a chamber-style hall, you don’t address people through a loudspeaker. You talk to them.”

Absolute Music: Homage to Claude Debussy

8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5 Absolute Gallery 307 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing. $10 suggested donation. (517) 482-8845