Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ambassadors of Song

Forget, for a moment, all those pregnant women who attempt to pipe Mozart into their wombs on the assumption that such music will lead to a kinder, better, and stronger fetus. Forget all the ways in which you can now carry your music around with you (whether on an iPod, iPhone, MP3 player, or some other device).

Think back to the first time that, as a child, you had a personal experience with song. Odds are it was the moment your mother sang you a lullaby as she rocked you to sleep (she may have sung the standard lullaby by Brahms). Here's Virginia O'Brien performing a jazzed-up version of Rock a Bye, Baby in the 1941 Marx Brothers' film, The Big Store:

From the moment a child hears his first lullaby, he equates song with the soothing presence of his mother, emotional security, and an incredible sense of tenderness. Years later, when singing a lullaby to another child, that same song will be passed on to the next generation as a gift wrapped up in unconditional love.

Vocal artists from every culture have traveled the world as wandering minstrels and ambassadors of song. Whether one thinks of such unique talents as France's Edith Piaf, South Africa's Miriam Makeba, America's Elvis Presley, Canada's Celine Dion, Australia's Joan Sutherland, Sweden's Birgit Nilsson, or Italy's Luciano Pavarotti, there is no denying the fact that these artists have become totemic figures in the history and culture of their homeland as well as in the international music world.

Wherever they have gone -- and however their voices have been heard -- these artists have awed listeners with their talent, charmed people with their music, and inspired new generations of singers with the power of their voices. Broadening their repertoire with new songs and arias as their careers expand, these artists love what they do and share that love with millions of fans and admirers.

Other than 1935's "I Feel A Song Coming On" (lyrics by Dorothy Fields and George Oppenheimer, music by Jimmy McHugh) few lyrics explain the power of the human voice like With A Song In My Heart. In this scene from 1930's Spring Is Here, Lawrence Gray and Bernice Claire sing this classic by Rodgers & Hart (originally written for their 1929 Broadway musical Spring Is Here).

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Last fall, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco presented a staged musical revue called Irving Berlin's I Love A Piano. Conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, the show attempted to cram 60 songs by Berlin into one fast-moving entertainment. Last month, Cantor Rosalyn Barak of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El took a more personal (and far more intimate) approach to exploring the Irving Berlin catalogue.

Cantor Roslyn Barak

Although Berlin's first published hit was Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911), many of his songs worked their way into the fabric of America's culture. Barak's program included numbers ranging from Berlin's famous Army song Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning (1918) to What'll I Do? (1924), Always (1925), and the oft-forgotten Yiddisha Nightingale:
"Miss Minnie Rosenstein
Had such a voice so fine
Just like Tetrazzini
Any time that Minnie sang a song
You'd think of real estate seven blocks long
Some song!
Young Mister Abie Cohn used to call to her home
Just to hear her singing
Presents he was bringing
Full of bliss!
One night young Abie proposed to the Miss
Like this!

Yiddisha nightingale, sing me a song
Your voice has got such sweetness that it makes me strong
Yiddisha nightingale, sing me a song
I promise that I'll take you on a long honeymoon
I'd give a dollar to hear you, my queen
I wouldn't give a nickel to hear Tetrazzini
Just to hear your cultivated voice good and strong
I'd serve a year in jail
Yiddisha nightingale
Won't you sing me a song?

Then said young Abie Cohn
I'm going to buy a home
One that's made of marble
Dear, where you can warble harmony
And I don't care for expenses you see
That's me!
I'll go and learn to play on the piano, say
You'll sing while I'm playing
People will be saying
As they pass
Some class!"
Many of Berlin's songs gained popularity over the radio, on Broadway, and in Hollywood musicals. There were moments of lyrical poignancy when Barak invited the audience to sing along with her renditions of such famous Berlin standards as Blue Skies (1926), Easter Parade (1933), White Christmas (1940), and You're Just In Love (1950). What struck me, however, was not just the sweetness of hearing so many seniors merrily raising their voices in song, but the fact that so many of them remembered the lyrics to songs that are more than 60 years old!

Irving Berlin

At one point, Barak showcased a moment of personal heaven by inviting the audience to join her in watching a clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing and dancing Cheek To Cheek in 1935's Top Hat.

The biggest surprise of the evening -- and a genuine shock for me -- came with the screening of the following clip from This Is The Army (1943) in which Kate Smith introduced God Bless America (originally written in 1918 for the musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank) to film audiences. As I watched Smith proudly strut her stuff, I suddenly realized how much she looked like Glenn Beck in drag. Don't take my word -- see for yourself!

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Last week, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre made its first appearance in its new home: the former Post Street Theatre. The good news is that this Bay area theatre company (which had been homeless for a critical period of time) finally has a roof over its head.

The bad news was obvious to everyone who attended the official opening of Mahalia: A Gospel Musical. What should have been a triumphant opening night was more like a nervous dress rehearsal in which lighting cues were flubbed, lines were stepped on, people needed help remembering the script, and the lead performer dutifully (if tentatively) kept trying to make her way up and down a daunting set of risers.

Jeanie Tracy as Mahalia Jackson

Known as the first Queen of Gospel Music, Mahalia Jackson was born in 1911 and grew up in the New Orleans area. She moved to the South Side of Chicago at the age of 16 and soon began touring with the Johnson Gospel Singers. During the Great Depression she toured around the church and gospel circuit with composer Thomas A. Dorsey but refused to sing secular music. She made her first recording sometime around 1931 and, by the time of her death, had recorded nearly 35 albums.

In 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. She subsequently toured Europe several times and sang at President Kennedy's inauguration. A close friend and supporter of the Reverend Martin Luther King, she sang at the March on Washington in 1963 before an audience of 250,000 and sang at King's funeral in 1968.

In addition to singing at political events in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in movies such as St. Louis Blues (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959), Jackson mentored Aretha Franklin, discovered Della Reese, and became a worldwide ambassador for gospel music. She was the first gospel singer to win a Grammy Award (the category of Gospel Music or Other Religious Recording was created by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in order to honor Mahalia Jackson in 1962 ).

As directed by Stanley E. Williams, the problems with Mahalia: A Gospel Musical were pretty obvious:
  • The company obviously lacked sufficient time to get settled in its new home and rehearse thoroughly.
  • Although supporting cast members John "Jambi" Borens and Yvonne Cobbs-Bey boast many years of experience working with gospel choirs, spoken text is not their strong suit. Other than her Act I characterization of Jackson's Aunt Duke, Ms. Cobbs-Bey had trouble creating believable portrayals throughout much of the evening.
  • Tom Stoltz's script is, at best well intentioned and, at worst, clumsily written.
  • As Mahalia Jackson, veteran singer Jeanie Tracy may have had voice to spare, but navigating the stage risers often seemed challenging. Despite her very sweet speaking voice, she is not a natural actress.
However, once Tracy opened her mouth to sing, none of these problems seemed to matter very much. I've seen numerous performances where musical preparation was underdone and dialogue was rock solid. This was one of the first opening nights I've attended where, even though the dialogue suffered terribly, the musical side of the evening was on solid ground. Some of this, no doubt, was due to the solid work by Borens on a Hammond organ and Charlene Moore on the piano.

More than anything, the production rides on the shoulders of the woman portraying Mahalia Jackson (who must deliver more than 25 musical numbers over the course of the evening). In this area, Tracy stood strong, happily delivering an encore of When The Saints Go Marching In.

Jeanie Tracy as Mahalia Jackson

I'm certainly not alone in wishing that the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre had a better opening night. But what's more important is that they now have a home to call their own -- and nowhere to go but up.

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Special mention should be made of a superb new musical documentary that will be screened on Saturday, March 13 at the upcoming San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival. An exuberant musical travelogue, Sing China! follows the Los Angeles Children's Chorus as they prepare for their 2008 tour of China, with performances in Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi’an.

The Los Angeles Children's Chorus at the Great Wall of China

Director Freida Lee Mock has done a beautiful job of balancing the personal and professional demands facing these teenagers as they deal with jet lag, culture shock, and the awe of passing impressive new buildings like Beijing's (Bird's Nest) National Stadium.

Beijing's Bird's Nest National Stadium

Along with sightseeing visits to a silk factory, the Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the famous Terracotta Army, we see the chorus of 60 youngsters (aged 11-17) as they rehearse, perform, and interact with their peers in choruses from various parts of China.

Interior shot of The Great Auditorium in Beijing

Whether performing in their hotel lobby as a way of showing their appreciation to the staff -- or in the 10,000-seat Great Auditorium of Beijing's Great Hall of the People -- the chorus proudly demonstrates how their work with artistic director Anne Tomlinson has prepared them to shine in performances of Carl Orff's challenging Carmina Burana as well as the Chinese folk song Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower), which can be heard in Act I of Puccini's 1926 opera, Turandot. In the following clip, soprano Song Zuying performs Mo Li Hua with a full orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

In the following clip (taken from a September 1998 performance of Turandot in Beijing's Forbidden City) you can hear the children's chorus sing Mo Li Hua at approximately the 7:30 mark:

Much of the joy in watching Sing China! comes from witnessing a group of highly-trained young musicians as they use song to cross musical bridges that span the Pacific Ocean as well as their teenage years. One student, who was adopted by an American family, goes back to visit the Chinese orphanage where she was taken by her birth parents. A young Filipino-American student from Los Angeles marvels at being in a place where almost everyone he sees is Asian.

In an era when teamwork in secondary schools is usually only showcased in sports like football and basketball, it's refreshing to see the Los Angeles Children's Chorus showing how the arts can be a positive influence for youth and serve as a shared experience that can be embraced and appreciated by teenagers around the world.

1 comment:

Gillion said...

Have you tried dumplings and roast ducks? They are the famous and traditional Beijing dieshes. And also bird's nest soup? Its a delicacy in China.

Enjoy your days~~~