Sunday, July 24, 2011

Quintessential American Sounds

One doesn't necessarily think of the calendar as having much impact on the sounds we hear. Yet who would dare to deny the number of love songs sung on Valentine's Day each February? Or the countless renditions of Richard Wagner's bridal march ("Treulich geführt") from Lohengrin in June?

Not a Sunday goes by without church organists performing liturgical music and many church choirs performing gospel music. Not a day goes by without someone singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend, relative, or co-worker. And who could ignore the timeliness of Christmas carols (or the sounds of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker) that are heard every December?

July casts a spotlight on American music -- and not just because so many Independence Day celebrations include marches by John Philip Sousa and popular songs by George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin. Passengers aboard the Disneyland Railroad listen to the third movement of Ferde Grofé's evocative Grand Canyon Suite as their train passes through a diorama. During the month of July, one is bound to hear renditions of such patriotic songs as:
Two Bay area arts organizations recently presented programs devoted to the works of distinctly American composers, men whose music evokes an instantly recognizable sense of American life.

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On July 7, the San Francisco Symphony presented an evening of music by George Gershwin. Kicking off with a soup-ed up overture to 1930's hit Broadway musical, Girl Crazy (which shot Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman, to stardom), the first act included a performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925) with the ebullient pianist, Ian Parker, as guest soloist. It's interesting to note that, in January of 1937, Gershwin performed his concerto with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Pierre Monteux. Six months later he succumbed to a malignant brain tumor at the age of 38.

Pianist Ian Parker

The second act showcased the songwriting talents of the composer and his brother, Ira Gershwin. In their 13 years as a songwriting team, the Gershwin brothers made a huge contribution to the American songbook. With conductor Michael Francis on the podium, Broadway's Laura Benanti sang four Gershwin classics -- "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Our Love Is Here To Stay," "I Got Rhythm," and "Someone To Watch Over Me" -- before performing an encore of "Summertime" from Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess.

Soprano Laura Benanti

A performer of immense appeal, Benanti confessed that the concert marked her first time in San Francisco, her first time singing with a symphony orchestra, as well as her first time singing with people seated behind her. I have no doubt that she will soon be appearing on a regular basis at pops concerts across the nation.

The evening concluded with an exuberant performance of one of Gershwin's most famous orchestral suites, An American in Paris (1928). The breadth of his contributions to American music offered a sobering reminder of the tragedy that this gifted talent died at such an early age.

Composer George Gershwin shortly before his death in 1937

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Meanwhile, down the Peninsula, Broadway by the Bay seems quite happily ensconced in its new home, the Fox Theatre in Redwood City. Although hardly as lavish as some of the old Fox movie palaces, the Redwood City auditorium has the kind of intimacy and acoustics that eluded the company in its previous venue, the San Mateo Performing Arts Center. Between the theatre and the San Mateo County History Museum is an old-fashioned town square which was hosting a free outdoor screening of 2002's popular animated feature, Ice Age, on the night I attended a performance of Meredith Willson's 1957 hit, The Music Man.

Professor Harold Hill (Tom Reardon) sings "76 Trombones" in
Broadway By The Bay's production of The Music Man
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

The Music Man holds a very special place in my heart. It was the second Broadway show I attended (the first one was Plain and Fancy), and I remember being thrilled by the opening moments in which clouds of stage fog billowed through a painted scrim depicting an old-fashioned steam locomotive. The show's opening number, "Rock Island," was nothing short of revolutionary at the time. During his recent stint at the Curran Theatre, Hugh Jackman sang the entire number (designed for a chorus of traveling salesmen) all by himself.

With book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, the show is a model of theatrical economy and stagecraft. Scene transitions are quick and easy. Musical numbers neatly move the plot forward. Some of the show's biggest production numbers ("Marian the Librarian" and "Shipoopi") are carried forward by a kind of American optimism that is not just infectious, but painfully absent from our current cultural landscape.

Wilson's score includes foot-tapping numbers such as "76 Trombones" and "The Wells Fargo Wagon" as well as wistful songs of longing like "Goodnight, My Someone,"  "My White Knight," "Will I Ever Tell You" and "Till There Was You."  The traditional appeal of barbershop quartet numbers like "Good Night, Ladies," "Sincere," "It's You," and "Lida Rose" is neatly balanced against novelty numbers like "Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little," "The Sadder But Wiser Girl," and "Gary, Indiana."

Kerie Darner-Moss as Marian Paroo (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

The Music Man is also one of the few shows during which I can always feel hot tears quietly running down my cheeks.  This often happens during specific moments (Winthrop's sudden outburst: "Thithter, thithter, ithn't thith cornet the motht thcrumpthiouth thing you've ever theen?") or during those parts of the script when Willson's dramatic craft become so evident, and his writing so clean, that your realize you'd need a wrecking ball to dent a hole in his show.

Tom Reardon as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

A familiar face to Bay area audiences, Tom Reardon portrayed Harold Hill as a mischievous scamp who had always managed to get by on his looks and charm until a feisty librarian turned the tables on him. As Marian Paroo, Kerie Darner-Moss displayed a strong lyric soprano. Claudia McCarley brought a matronly Irish twang to the role of Mrs. Paroo while Trevor Wright's dancing added grace and humor to the role of Tommy Djilas.

Supporting roles were solidly cast with Mark Alabanza as Marcellus Washburn, Scott Stanley as the anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell; Linda Piccone as the Mayor's wife, Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn; and David Gahagen as her blustering husband. Some of the evening's best musical work came from the barbershop quartet (David Lloyd Pias as Ewart Dunlap, Ryan Baum as Jacey Squires, Mark Waldman as Oliver Hix, and especially bass-baritone David Murphy as Olin Britt).

Using sets and costumes rented from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Lee Ann Payne kept the stage direction nice and brisk, with Attilio Tribuzi putting the pit band through its paces. To suggest that a good time was had by all would be a severe understatement.

Tom Reardon as Professor Harold Hill with
Kerie Darner-Moss as Marian Paroo in The Music Man

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