Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Old Music, New Voices

Search engines are such fun! Sometimes, when you start to research a topic, the results of a search reveal unexpected and often remarkable connections. It's even better than playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!

Let me show you how it works. The legendary Barbara Cook is coming to town next week and will be appearing on Friday, December 4 at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Last Sunday, in a glowing tribute to Cook in the Sunday New York Times, music critic Charles Isherwood wrote:
"DRG Records, which also records jazz and world music, recently brought out a boxed set called The Essential Barbara Cook Collection. It arrived just as I was catching up on episodes of Glee. Uploading the set on my iPod and immersing myself in Ms. Cook's artistry reminded me of what is missing from the campy production numbers in Glee: the human touch. When the kids in the club break into song, their voices become oddly disembodied, just one element among many to be manipulated by technicians in a thick layer of sound. Serious suspension of disbelief is required to believe that the songs are being performed live in a high school classroom — or by actual human beings at all — rather than manufactured and polished in a plush digital sound studio. Glee trades in soapy fantasy, of course, and the souped-up production makes the show’s retro pop mimic the slick sounds of contemporary charts.
But when you hear Ms. Cook rendering selections from the theater songbook in concert performances from the past decade or two, you realize how meaningful and rich in emotional power the art of popular singing can be. It doesn’t have to be pure sugar candy, forgotten as soon as it’s dissolved."
As I searched for the lyrics to one of Cook's theme songs ("Sing A Song With Me"), I was surprised that they were not available online. However, I did find a wonderful surprise: A video clip of Pert Kelton appearing in the 1933 movie The Bowery, which opened with her singing Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay (written by Henry J. Sayers and introduced in 1891) and closed to the sounds of a hit song written in 1895 -- The Band Played On -- written by Charles B. Ward with lyrics by John F. Palmer.

Here's where the fun starts:
What is the glue that unites these three performances?
As one considers the assets on display during these three performances, one soon realizes that they span a musical history of some 220 years in which generation after generation of musicians have studied the songs written by these composers, learned how to apply their artistic talents to interpreting their music and, if they are lucky enough, been blessed to receive the guidance and insight of older, more experienced singers who have come before them. World-class artists such as Barbara Cook (who has conducted numerous master classes) and Sheri Greenawald (who, after a substantial international career in Europe and North America, is now guiding the young singers in the San Francisco Opera Center) help them understand the craft of song interpretation while guiding them in the mechanics of being a professional singer.

As multiple generations of singers tackle an astounding literature of music written for the human voice, audiences can experience styles ranging from classical opera to ragtime, from jazz to Broadway show tunes. During each performance, they have an opportunity to appreciate an artist's physical prowess, musical sensitivity, intellectual acuity, emotional depth, and legacy of performing diverse repertoire under ever-changing circumstances.

* * * * * * * * *
Conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, Irving Berlin's I Love A Piano tries to cram nearly 60 songs by Irving Berlin into one evening by arranging them to reflect the eras of Berlin's career. With Justin Fischer on the piano (keeping pace with a synthesized soundtrack), the show progresses through the following segments:
Along the way there are some curious surprises. I was particularly taken by this lyric for Pack Up Your Sins from one of Berlin's Music Box Revues in the 1920s:
"Pack up your sins and go to the devil in Hades
You'll meet the finest of gentlemen and the finest of ladies
They'd rather be down below than up above
Hades is full of thousands of
Joneses and Browns, O'Hoolihans, Cohens and Bradys
You'll hear a heavenly tune that went to the devil
Because the jazz bands
They started pickin' it
Then put a trick in it
A jazzy kick in it
They've got a couple of old reformers in Heaven
Making them go to bed at eleven
Pack up your sins and go to the devil
And you'll never have to go to bed at all

If you care to dwell where the weather is hot
H-E-double-L is a wonderful spot
If you need a rest and you're all out of sorts
Hades is the best of the winter resorts
Paradise doesn't compare
All the nice people are there
They come there from ev'rywhere
Just to revel with Mister Devil
Nothing on his mind but a couple of horns
Satan is waitin' with his jazz band
And his band came from Alabam' with a melody hot
No one gives a damn if it's music or not
Satan's melody makes you want to dance forever
And you never have to go to bed at all."
I Love A Piano features numerous costume changes for its ensemble of six singers. Belter Haley Swindal easily outshone Jackey Good and Crystal Kellogg with regard to both comic and vocal chops. Of the three men, I particularly enjoyed the work of young Ryan Lammer and Joshua Woodie. The last of Berlin's songs to be included in this production was "Old Fashioned Wedding," which he wrote for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun at Lincoln Center.

It's too bad the show's creators neglected Berlin's last musical, Mr. President (1962), in which Nanette Fabray sang "Let's Go Back To The Waltz." Perry Como made a hit recording of "Empty Pockets Filled With Love," whose beautiful lyrics are as follows:
"Empty pockets but a heart full of love
A heart full of love for you.
Cash not any, not one red penny
But kisses many for you

Empty pockets but a heart beating fast
As fast as the stars above.
Please say that you'll get by with just a guy
With empty pockets filled with love.

You can't eat love, you can't drink love,
You can't wear love like you would a gown.
I trust love, but just love
Won't pay for caviar,
Won't buy that motor car
Or a house in town.

You can't spend love, you can't lend love
You must end love when the chips are down.
Love flies out the window when there's nothing to eat
Nothing to drink, nothing to wear but a frown
And the chips are down."
This show affords a rare chance to hear some of the songs Berlin wrote for a series of wartime shows, including 1918's Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning. Berlin also liked to play around with musical counterpoint. Two of his hit songs written in this fashion were the aforementioned Old Fashioned Wedding and You're Just In Love (from 1950's Call Me Madam). A special treat for me was to hear both these songs sung as counterpoint to each other (showing how all four voices followed the same beat and architecture).

Suppertime (which was introduced to audiences by Ethel Waters in the 1993 musical revue, As Thousands Cheer) was given a standard torch song treatment by Ms. Swindal. There was no way the audience at the JCCSF would have been aware that the song was originally written as a woman's reaction to the news of her husband's lynching.

Irving Berlin

If I have one regret about I Love A Piano, it involves its frenetic pacing and overdirection. It seems as if stage directors, perhaps because they don't trust Berlin's more lyrical instincts, always want to keep his music running fast and perky. This sometimes gives the impression of having the CliffsNotes version of a songwriter's catalog crammed down the audience's throat. With Berlin's prodigious output, there is an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.

As I sat in the JCC's Kanbar Hall, noticing the unrelenting perkiness with which I Love A Piano was being performed, I started to feel as if I was watching a performance on a cruise ship. I had a similar sensation several years ago while watching the stage version of Berlin's White Christmas at the Curran Theatre (that production is now being revived in New York for the holiday season). Upon checking the cast's credits, I was not surprised to see quite a bit of experience performing on cruise ships and in theme parks, where the goal is to put a smile on people's faces and keep 'em happy.

* * * * * * *
As the old saying goes: "Different strokes for different folks." Several things about Sunday night's concert by the 2009 Adler Fellows gave the performance immense appeal. Instead of having to sing over the orchestra from the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, the performance was held in Herbst Theatre, where the orchestra barely fit on the stage. With the singers forced out onto a stage apron well beyond the proscenium arch, their fresh, young voices could be heard to maximum effect.

Unlike the performance at Kanbar Hall, none of the singers wore microphones, nor was their sound being electronically engineered. While the current season of So You Think You Can Dance is memorable for the presence of three tap dancers, the 2009 Adler Fellows feature a rare bumper crop of tenors.

Alek Shrader opened with a lovely rendition of Tamino's "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon" from The Magic Flute and subsequently shared the duet "All' idea di quel metallo" from the first act of Rossini's Barber of Seville with baritone Austin Kness. Andrew Bidlack scored comic points with "Allegro io son" from Donizetti's rarely-performed Rita and David Lomeli scored strongly with Edgardo's "Tombe degli avi miei. Fra poco a me ricovero" from Act II of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor."

2009 Adler Fellows (Photo by: Kristen Loken Anstey)

Other highlights included Leah Crocetto singing Matilda's aria, "Selva opaca" from Rossini's Guglielmo Tell, and Tamara Wapinsky singing "Es gibt ein Reich" from Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Leah Crocetto and David Lomeli brought down the house at the end of first act with "O soave fanciulla" from Act I of Puccini's La Boheme.

Whereas the final bars of this duet are usually sung offstage (with the audience wondering if the tenor and soprano will be able to hold onto the final notes), on this occasion the duet ended with two healthy young voices nailing it in full view of the audience. Quite understandably, the crowd went wild.

Perkiness isn't everything.

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