Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Taking Note

My father was tone deaf. Although he enjoyed listening to Broadway shows, I never heard him sing anything other than "Happy Birthday To You." Nor do I recall his ever playing a musical instrument.

However, over many years of attending opera, musical theatre, and live concerts, I've developed an acute sensitivity to how music enhances certain dramatic moments. Sometimes the power of a film score may grab me with greater intensity than the movie's script. At other times, a passage of music is so beautifully matched to the action that their artistic strengths unite to create pure magic. Earlier this year, at screenings of Chicken With Plums, I was deeply impressed by the beauty of Olivier Bernet's film score (as well as the fact that it ended with the perfect note placed at the perfect moment).

Poster art for Chicken With Plums

A singer's talent for phrasing, coloration, and understanding a lyric's intent can make all the difference in the world. In his recent article in The New York Times entitled Gifts of Voice That Keep On Giving, music critic Anthony Tommasini paid tribute to how carefully 70-year-old Barbra Streisand and 85-year-old Barbara Cook had taken care of their vocal instruments through decades of interpreting the American songbook.
“The best pop singers seem never to age. Look at Frank Sinatra. You cannot say his singing declined as he matured; rather, it changed, mellowed and took on more vocal weight and emotional depth. He may have given some shaky performances toward the end, but no one said he was too old to sing. Like Ms. Cook, Ms. Streisand has had to learn to adjust her vocal artistry as her voice has weathered. High notes do not come as easily, though even in her vocal prime, Ms. Streisand’s high range was not her comfort zone. In those days, whether she let a top note shimmer with penetrating power or coaxed her voice to reach the peak of a phrase with breathy expressivity, her singing was driven by the instincts of a born actress who was using her voice ‘as a means to an end’ (as Ms. Streisand explained in a 2009 interview). Both [Ms. Streisand and Ms. Cook] offer inspiring examples of how to adapt artistry to changes in vocal capacities.”
I wish I could say the same for Shirley Jones, who made her debut at The Rrazz Room this week singing songs from her most popular movie musicals (Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Music Man) as well as some cabaret chestnuts by Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers & Hart.

In her heyday, Ms. Jones (whom I saw in 1968's short-lived Maggie Flynn) had a beautiful lyric soprano. Now 79 and the proud grandmother of 12, her voice has grown huskier in its lower range and she has become more of a belter.

While some of Jones's choices were unnerving ("Can't Help Lovin' Dat' Man" from 1927's Show Boat and the strangest interpretation of "Send in the Clowns" I've ever heard), the most shocking aspect of her performance was her continual difficulty finding the correct pitch. Although Ms. Jones has retained a rich, warm sound with no discernible wobble (and no obvious signs of fraying), her aim, though well-intentioned, is often haphazard. Many of the problems she encountered could easily be solved by redefining her comfort zone and making a simple investment in having her arrangements transposed down by about a third.

Having perfect pitch can be a blessing or a curse. It's handy when learning music to know that you don't have to worry about understanding one note's relationship to another. But it can just as easily become a nagging curse that makes one acutely aware of how a singer's pitch problems are sabotaging her performance.

While Ms. Jones did none of the scooping some performers rely on late in their careers, her hit-and-miss approach to many phrases was the aural equivalent of watching a pilot try to land a plane in strong crosswinds. No skid marks, but many moments of alarm and uncertainty.

* * * * * * * * *
One doesn't expect a dramatization of The Iliad to get upstaged by some hipster rushing into the theatre with his bicycle, but that's exactly what happens during the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's adaptation of Homer's epic poem. Conceived by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, their 100-minute-long monologue is powerfully performed by Henry Woronicz under Peterson's careful direction.

When the creative team first put this production together at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, they worked carefully to find a way for the poet (Homer) to address the audience as contemporaries so that his account of the Trojan War could seem fresh and relevant.

Sometimes strange things happen to me during a live performance. One would think that Homer's tale of the Trojan War would be enough to keep anyone's mind busy but, as I watched the performance, I felt myself bookmarking chapters of Homer's tale by successive lighting cues, costume adjustments, and transitions bookended by the repositioning of a chair, door, or table.

What riveted my attention, however, was Brian Ellingsen's magnetic performance as the musician/muse who accompanies Homer's tragic song. One rarely gets to hear a double bass used as a solo instrument (except, perhaps, in jazz ensembles). But Mark Bennett's piercing score (whether melodic or percussive, whether capturing the wooden sonority of a double bass or the metallic ring of a nearby stanchion) grabbed my attention and became the most powerful force of the evening for me.

Henry Woronicz and Brian Ellingsen in An Iliad
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With a fierceness to match the love between Achilles and Patroclus, the ominous percussiveness necessary to narrate a tale of war, and the sonorous sounds to match King Priam's sorrow as he begs for the body of his slain son, Hector, Bennett's music became an integral part of the story in the most remarkable way. While I don't wish to diminish Henry Woronicz's bravura performance as a storyteller, it was Bennett's music that made the evening soar for me.

There are many golden moments in the retelling of Homer's story which parallel the futility of our two recent wars in the Middle East. If Woronicz's recital of the names of wars men have fought from ancient times up to the present doesn't send a chill up your spine, you've probably lost all hope of learning anything from history. Performances of An Iliad continue through November 18 at Berkeley Rep's Thrust stage (click here to order tickets).

Henry Woronicz as The Poet in An Iliad (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

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