Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Artistry of Barbara Cook

She had the blessing of two phenomenal careers, both of which remain unparalleled.

I’ve collected Barbara Cook’s recordings for years, and started to delve into them more systematically a number of months ago after I read “Then & Now,” her almost painfully honest memoir. Following her recent passing, I returned to her catalog of work, and once again found myself astonished by her way with a song.

I have to think being Broadway’s favorite ingenue during the 1950’s and early ’60’s was excellent preparation for her second act as a solo performer. Among her many accomplishments, she created three indelible characters: Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Marian Paroo in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” and Amalia in Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” She also graced revivals of  “The King and I,” “Showboat” and “Carousel,” both as Carrie Pipperidge and later as Julie Jordan (she famously preferred the former). While her performances in all of the these shows have been captured on disk, the one I always return to is “The Music Man.” Is there a more evocative number than “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?,” Marian’s duet with the barbershop quartet? The real 1912 was, I’m sure, far removed from the theatrical River City, but listening to that number automatically transports you to a long ago summer night. It’s the way we always wished that era had been.

I was fortunate to see her live twice. The first time she performed many of the songs on her “It’s Better With a Band” album, but what remains indelible in my memory is the encore she sang—Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away,” without a mike—just that silvery sound with no electronic enhancement whatsoever. The song just floated throughout the hall. I later heard her with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Wally Harper, her long-time music director, and most of the material came from her “Disney Album,” which had just been released. Was there ever a more perfect match of singer and song? The most refreshing aspect of her performance was her lack of pretense. I remember her putting on her glasses to read the sheet music during the “Disney” concert (for lyrics–she famously never learned to read music). This carried through in an interview she gave at one point on WQXR, New York’s classical music station. She was asked “How long do you warm up before a performance?” Ms. Cook replied “I don’t warm up. I just hum a few bars to see what I’ve got to work with that night.” And she was also a knowledgeable and opinionated opera fan (Is there any other kind?) whose interviews during Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermissions were a treat.

As great as her Broadway career was, she set an even higher bar as a solo/cabaret artist. What I most liked about her was the emotional level she brought to a song. Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a singer who goes dramatically over the top, pedal to the metal, when the song is not intended to carry such heavy baggage. Singers who consistently resort to that approach don’t trust the material they’re performing, which makes me not trust them. Ms. Cook, on the other hand, knew what a song was saying, and within that context illuminated the composer and lyricist’s intent. Musically she sang what fit her voice, whether it was traditionally a “man’s song” or a “woman’s song;” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her His Face,” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” were standards in her repertoire, and on “Marianne,” a lovely Jerry Herman number which surprisingly fit her voice like a glove, she didn’t bother to change pronouns, letting the music carry the emotion of the song. Few singers possess the art of illuminating both the music and the words simultaneously, but Ms. Cook certainly did. Listen to “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” from her “Barbara Cook at the Met” album. She so obviously loved singing it–she relishes the phrase “corny as Kansas as August,” and leans on certain words to build to the eventual climax of the song: “fearlessly,” “loudly,” “flatly” finally, of course, “love.” Her musicianship was superb. I had no idea that Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” had such lovely music until I heard her sing it.

She never remained static in her approach, instead revisiting a song to find more within. Case in point: Jerry Herman’s “Time Heals Everything” from his show “Mack and Mabel.” Her first recording of this number, on “Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall,” presents an almost objective approach, as if she’s trying to give herself a pep talk to overcome the present grief of loss.  A number of years later, on her “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” album, she’s sadder but just as determined to survive the pain. On this recording the song is paired in a medley with a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” in which her ability to sing legato—the smooth transition from note to note—is on full display. She could go the dramatic route—she makes her voice break twice in an even later, more pain-driven version of “Time Heals Everything” on her live “The Champion Season” recording—but it really doesn’t suit her. Nevertheless she manages to save that performance with a floated final note so ravishing that a “Lovely!” from a man in the audience is audible.

Fortunately she left a considerable body of work covering the best of the American Song Book. It’s so hard to pick my favorite Barbara Cook recordings, but I’ll try. All of these are currently available:

“Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.” Her return to performing after many years away. Although the lady tells the audience “I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be,” you can tell she is at the start, though two songs in, she’s totally relaxed. “Carolina in the Morning,” with its peach of an arrangement, and “Wait Till You See Him” are tremendous.

“It’s Better With a Band.” Here she’s in full command of her resources, with excellent material, and her confidence as an artist is off the charts. “Them There Eyes,” her vocal/kazoo duet with tuba, the medley of Leonard Bernstein songs, especially “I Can Cook Too,”and the aforementioned “Marianne” are highlights. You can see her perform a number of songs from this album in “An Evening With Barbara Cook,” on YouTube.

“Follies.” With all due respect to Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally Plummer, Ms. Cook delivers what may be the definitive version of “Losing My Mind.”

“Oscar Winners,” consisting entirely of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, on which Ms. Cook sings a stunning “All the Things You Are” and “The Gentleman is a Dope.”

“The Disney Album.” “Lavender Blue” alone is worth the price of the CD, though hearing Barbara Cook in triplicate, courtesy of over-dubbing, on “When I See an Elephant Fly” is an absolute treat. I love songs from the older Disney films, and I only wish she had recorded “Never Smile at a Crocodile.”

“No One is Alone,””Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and “Loverman.” These four recordings date from 2007 to 2012, and though she was pushing 80, she could still sustain a phrase. Her voice maintained its quality, and in fact only became warmer when she lowered the keys in which she sang. If your only acquaintance with “I’m Through With Love,” is hearing Alfalfa sing it in an old “Our Gang” short, you need to hear Ms. Cook’s version on “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” as well as her superlative rendition of Sondheim’s “I Wish I Could Forget You.” That last song also appears on “No One is Alone,” which features a lovely medley of “Long Before I knew You”/”I Fall in Love Too Easily,” as well as Sondheim’s “One More Kiss.””You Make Me Feel So Young,” from a live 2011 performance, has some great up-tempo numbers on which she clearly has a ball—“Frim Fram Sauce” and “Love is Good For Anything That Ails You,” plus her discourse on how difficult it is to find a good kazoo. “Loverman” contains an arresting a capella version of “House of the Rising Sun.” While her voice by then was not what it once was, what she did have was far more than most singers, and she makes it work.

One last compelling example of Barbara Cook’s way with a song: “For All We Know,” on the “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” album (I had always thought of this as the quintessential World War II song, and was surprised to learn it had been composed in 1934). Accompanied on piano by her then-music director, Lee Musiker, Ms. Cook delivers an indelible performance. It’s easy to go over the top with this number, but she underscores the sentiment with just a touch of sorrow. She tells you volumes, not only about the woman who’s able to face such a parting while keeping it together, but also about the man she’s singing it to, who inspired such emotion.

Two minutes of heaven.

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Posted in Music, Opera

Lingering in the Glow

Party Like It’s 1911: Elina Garança (Octavian) and Renée Fleming (The Marschallin)

If you think the customer is always right, you might have believed the audience members who booed the production team of the new Robert Carsen “Der Rosenkavalier” that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera several weeks ago. But you would have been dead wrong. I saw it last Friday, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Carsen has tossed aside the powdered wigs and knee breeches and set the opera in the year of its premiere, 1911. His take on this Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal masterpiece is a marvel of detail, so much so that I plan to attend the Live in HD telecast in two weeks just to catch some business I might have missed. It’s spot-on to see the egotistical Italian tenor (a terrific Matthew Polenzani) present the Marschallin with a 78 rpm recording of his latest hit, which he proceeds to autograph for her with a flourish. And in an uproarious Act III, how can anyone be surprised that the band showing up to serenade Ochs and Mariandel is clearly Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters from “Some Like It Hot,” complete with sax and bass. (I know that’s the 1920’s, but if Strauss can write an 18th century opera replete with three-quarter time though the waltz wouldn’t be invented until decades later, anachronism becomes the norm). I could go on, but I don’t want to give away all the incidentals that make this production such fun.

As sharply observed as this production is, it wouldn’t have the impact it enjoys without its cast. Much publicity has surrounded Renée Fleming’s final appearances as the Marschallin, and while I can’t say that her voice retains all the luster it once possessed, dramatically speaking she’s grown enormously in the role. Years ago I saw one of her first Marschallins at the Met, and she seemed somewhat intimidated by the part. In Carsen’s production she easily achieves what all good Marschallins must—she holds the audience throughout the levée, her monologue and the following scene with Octavian, and captures the bittersweet ending of Act I perfectly. Yet her final exit in Act III, on the arm of the Feldmarschall’s “brave orderly,” after a not-quite covert glance or two, reminds us that Octavian wasn’t her first lover, and certainly won’t be her last.

(A propos of absolutely nothing, what do Marschallins do when they’re off-stage during Act II and the first half of Act III? Play cards with the stage hands? Take a snooze? Maybe Ms. Fleming will spill the beans during the HD telecast intermission).

Elina Garança is a phenomenal Octavian. She certainly makes a gorgeous guy and her voice is lovely, but the uniqueness of her portrayal rests on her vivid embodiment of the 17 year-old boy he’s supposed to be. The petulance and impetuosity are there, but her Octavian is slightly more deferential to his lover than most, and his departure at the end of Act I is done not so much out of anger as of befuddled sorrow. Garança hints at his growing knowledge that his affair with a married woman really can’t go anywhere, yet she still manages to convince us that his love for Sophie is not just a matter of falling for the first pretty face he sees. She plays the comedy very well—her “Victor/Victoria” in Act III (the trick of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) is flawless.

Waltzing Away Act II: Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Annina (Helene Schneiderman)

Because Baron Ochs is usually played as a fat fool, you tend to forget that Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal had something else in mind. Günther Groissböck portrays him as the 35-year old bachelor he was conceived to be, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a young, attractive bass in the role. This Ochs may be an idiot over Mariandel, but he’s no fool. His harping on “die Marschallin…Octavian…Mariandel” in Act III poses a real threat, and it’s only when the Marschallin doesn’t flinch that he gives in to her insistence that he depart the field.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was missing the excellent Sophie of Erin Morley, but she’s due to return shortly and will be on hand for the live telecast on May 13 that will also feature Ms. Fleming’s last ever Marschallin as well as Ms. Garança’s final Octavian (she’s headed for the more dramatic flair of Amneris, Santuzza and Dalila).

The score and libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier” are among the finest in the literature. But Robert Carsen’s production also reminds us what superb theater this work can (and should) always be. Bravo!

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It was a double-header weekend for me. Yesterday I attended a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall that was simulcast on Medici TV. The entire opera will be viewable on the Carnegie Hall website for the next 90 days, and if you’d like to hear what perfection sounds like, cue the webcast at 1:10:30 for Joyce DiDonato’s “Scherza infida,” accompanied by Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Time stands still.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Sound of Broadway

Two recent events have once again proven there are few performances more iconic than those given in Broadway musicals. The death of John McMartin, an actor who graced the original Broadway productions of “Sweet Charity” and the landmark”Follies,” reminded me that the original cast albums of these shows are among my favorite listening experiences. And the sheer joy and exuberance that Zachary Levy brings to the recording of the recent “She Loves Me” revival are the perfect antidote to a down-in-the-dumps day.

Whether on 10-inch shellac 78 rpm disks, vinyl, cassette tape or CD, the original cast album has always served a dual purpose: as advertising for the show and its score and as souvenir for those lucky enough to have seen it on Broadway or on tour. But before we go any further, let’s get one of my pet peeves out of the way. A cast album of a theatrical production is not a “soundtrack,” no matter what retailers, web sites and streaming services may tell you. A soundtrack is what you hear when you see a movie; in CD form it’s the music and/or vocal score of a film. And the differences between a cast album and a soundtrack in terms of performers’ energy and the quality of sound involved can be amazing.

I’ve written before about the cast albums of “Parade,” “LoveMusik,” and “A Little Night Music,” but these are by no means my only favorites. One of my most listened-to recordings is of a show I’ve never seen on stage: “Sweet Charity,” which absolutely crackles with its Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score; in its original form, it far outstrips the score of the film version starring Shirley MacLaine (surprise, surprise). Had the movie kept Sweet Charity“Baby, Dream Your Dream” and the Broadway version of the title song as sung by John McMartin, not to mention the guitars and mariachi of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” it might not have been the flop that it was. The sizzle of “Big Spender” (dum dum da-dum dum-dum) and the contrapuntal chorus in “The Rhythm of Life” are just icing on the cake. I can’t leave “Sweet Charity,” though, without singling out Gwen Verdon as one of the best in the original cast album universe. I only saw her on stage once, in the original production of “Chicago,” but the albums of her shows are among the most energetic and fun to hear.

Another Cy Coleman score, “Little Me,” is another great listen. Among its assets is an absolute knock-out performance by Swen Swenson of “I’ve Got Your Number” with the sexiest come-on baritone imaginable. For this show Mr. Coleman’s lyricist was Carolyn Leigh; one of the choruses of “Real Live Girl,” sung by World War I doughboys, never fails to make me smile in its fashion accuracy:

Girls were like fellas was once my belief
What a reversal and what a relief
I’ll take the flowering hat and the towering heel
And the squeal
Of a real live girl.

Follies PapermillThe late Mr. McMartin was Ben Stone in the legendary original production of “Follies.” It’s one of the biggest cheats in the history of Broadway musicals that Capitol Records, which produced the cast album, couldn’t or wouldn’t release it on two disks. Suffice it to say there’s a ton of missing Sondheim; verses, choruses, reprises and entire numbers vanished. Nevertheless, despite its truncated state this album is still a keeper. Every original cast recording is a direct expression of the composer’s and lyricist’s intentions—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (This is perfectly apparent in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary of the recording of the “Company” cast album). Given the fall and rise of “Follies” since its 1971 premiere, not to mention the various revisions to the show during these years, it’s always fun to return to the blueprint.

However, I’m equally fascinated by the songs written for “Follies” that never made it to opening night. Although they’ve popped up on various recordings of lost show tunes and in reviews based on Sondheim scores, you can hear all of them sung in character on the recording of the Paper Mill Playhouse production that set the bar for all “Follies” revivals. Donna McKechnie and Tony Roberts may not totally measure up vocally as Sally and Buddy, but Dee Hoty and Lawrence Guittard certainly do as Phyllis and Ben. This two-disk version of “Follies” contains every song ever written for the show, among which are some of Sondheim’s finest work. You’ll wonder why these songs were cut, especially “Bring on the Girls,” which, with its emphatically descending bass line, is a perfect accompaniment to show girls making their entrance (In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim admits that he should never have replaced it with “Beautiful Girls”). However, the cut song that remains in memory the longest is the original version of the double duet in the “Follies” section of the show, in this instance sung by the younger versions of Ben and Phyllis: “Who Could Be Blue/Little White House.” Its haunting melody and the wistful innocence of its expression are lovely; the contrast with “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through” is particularly poignant. By the way, this recording includes all three versions of Phyllis’ “Follies” number: “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” “Uptown, Downtown,” and “Ah, But Underneath.” For my money, the first of these remains the best; who else but Sondheim would write the line “That’s the sorrowful précis”?

Other cast albums bring standout moments: Kelli O’Hara’s successive astonishment, wonderment and delight as she sings “I’m in love!” at the climax of “A Wonderful Guy” in the revival of “South Pacific;” Beth Malone’s desperation, singing “Telephone Wire” in “Fun Home,” as her character so longsKismet for a different past; Ms. O’Hara again, this time with Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael McKean, in the revival of “Pajama Game,” doing a bang-up job on “I’m Not at All in Love” (As a devoted fan of 50’s pop, I love this score).  There’s an entire series of recordings from the revivals produced by the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in the 1960’s; I frequently play the disk of “Kismet” to hear soprano Lee Venora as Marsinah sing a tremendous”Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (and Alfred Drake’s “Olive Tree” ain’t too shabby either).

Which brings me to the recent revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” Its excellent recording comes with a substantial bonus: the performance of Zachary Levi as Georg. I saw the show in June (thanks again, Jane!), and while the four principals were well matched, it was Jane Krakowski as Ilona who was just a bit more memorable. On disk, however, it’s Mr. Levi who takes the honors; it’s impossible to hear him sing the show’s title song without grinning from ear to ear. Here’s hoping he comes back to Broadway to do another musical soon.

And your favorites are?

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater

All in a Weekend

oldhats1
Bill Irwin and David Shiner in “Old Hats”

There are ups and downs to the freelancing life, and one of the latter is sometimes having to work on holidays. While I did so on Presidents’ Day, I still enjoyed fine theater and music throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, though, I ended with the Metropolitan Opera’s latest dead-on-arrival new production, “Manon Lescaut.” In the immortal words of every baseball manager who ever lived, “You can’t win ’em all.”

Fortunately my weekend kickoff was “Old Hats,” a return engagement of the 2013 show starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Although I wasn’t previously familiar with David Shiner’s work, I feel like Bill Irwin and I go way back. I remember him as the mime Enrico Ballati on “Northern Exposure,” and was fortunate to see his Tony-winning performance as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Kathleen Turner (the corrosive look those two exchanged after his “get the guests” game will remain with me forever).

“Old Hats” predictably begins with Irwin and Shiner one-upping each other in a hat routine; what follows is one cleverly outlandish sequence after another. What is most striking about the evening’s entertainment is how fresh and spontaneous they made everything seem, even after working together for twenty years. You’d think a routine featuring two politicians engaged in debate would be a yawner, but aside from the timeliness during this election year, how quickly they responded to each other became its own source of delight.

My favorite sequence in “Old Hats” consisted of an act featuring an over-the-hill magician (Shiner) and his blowsy blonde assistant (Irwin in drag). He goes into a disco move every time something goes wrong (which is frequently); she looks daggers at the young female “volunteer” from the audience who’s about to be sawed in half. In short this is a compilation of every bad act that ever appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show, and I could not stop laughing. Equally good is Shiner’s take on silent cowboy movies, featuring a cast recruited from the audience. Whether some or all of these people were plants is immaterial—Shiner’s inventiveness was amazing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.

While Irwin and Shiner are for the most part silent throughout, Shaina Taub and her band who supply the music, songs and occasional sound effects fortunately are not. This is clowning at its finest, and I can’t recommend “Old Hats” highly enough.

Manon Lescaut
Love in Occupied France: “Manon Lescaut”

Had Jonas Kaufmann not cancelled his appearance in the Met’s new production of “Manon Lescaut,” the approach taken by director Richard Eyre might have worked, at least in part. Instead we were left with an ill-conceived staging that did few favors for the spirit of the work. By the end of the opera it seemed apparent that the only heroes of the night were Puccini and conductor Fabio Luisi.

Eyre set this production in Occupied France, ostensibly because he feels “Manon Lescaut” has a noirish tone. Certainly he can’t get this from the music—Act I just pops with youth and springtime. To say it killed the joy to see the stage populated with German soldiers is an understatement. Their presence begged so many questions: How could the crowd at the outdoor cafe get away with taunting them en masse? Why would the Wehrmacht, not the gendarmerie, come to arrest Manon for common theft? Any deportations during World War II would have been to the death camps, not to the swamps of Louisiana envisioned by Puccini, Massenet (composer of the earlier Manon) or even Abbé Prévost, author of the 1731 novel on which both operas are based. While I usually enjoy updated opera—I particularly liked Eyre’s own “Le Nozze di Figaro” set during the “Regle du jeu” 1930’s—the setting has to serve the work and the intentions of the composer and librettist. It did not do so here.

Jonas Kaufmann’s participation would have wall-papered over some of the shortcomings of Eyre’s approach. At least he and Kristine Opalais (Manon) would have had chemistry. Unfortunately with Roberto Alagna as des Grieux, we were stuck with two hard-working professionals who simply didn’t relate to each other. In fact despite the bedroom scene in the second act, there was no discernible heat on stage until Act III, when the lovers’ plight became desperate. I was also bothered by Eyre’s view of Manon. Simply putting Opalais in a Veronica Lake wig and silk negligee does not supply motivation for the character. Mirella Freni was the first Manon Lescaut I ever saw onstage, and though she probably wouldn’t have seen 60 again at that point, she had a firm view of the character that was expressed from within. She let you know in Act II that Manon had her bitchy side, but more than that, the character enjoyed showing it. Opalais could reach that watermark, but in a different production of “Manon Lescaut” that doesn’t saddle her with such a wrong directorial concept.

My advice is to stay home and listen to the radio broadcast on March 5. Fabio Luisi leads a sympathetic reading of the score, the singers tend to the musical side of things in good form and you won’t be distracted by all the nonsense that transpires on stage.

Preludios

 

Every so often it’s refreshing to leave the standard Italian/French/German vocal repertoire for works from other cultural traditions. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s recent album “Preludios” presents some wonderfully ear-catching Spanish song, including de Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” and Montsalvatge’s “Cinco canciónes negras”; her performance of the latter is worth the price of the CD alone.

The Catalonian Xavier Montsalvage composed this cycle in 1946, and its reliance on both Spanish and Cuban styles resulted in the composer’s best-known work. I’ve loved this from first hearing via a Victoria de los Angeles song anthology. Her version had symphonic accompaniment; Miss Leonard is partnered by the talented pianist Brian Zeger. The high point of both song cycle and CD is without question her performance of “Canción de cuña para dormir a un negrito.” Leonard takes this work with its unusual sliding chromaticism at a markedly slower tempo than de los Angeles—it’s a lullaby after all. This, in addition to the progressively softer dynamic, serves to underscore the beauty of the alluring melody and the lovely sound of Leonard’s voice. The result is absolutely stunning. The exuberant “Canto negro” follows to end this expressive song cycle.

Brava Isabel!

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Music, Television

Brain Bits for a Frigid February

While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).

So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?

Joyce Brentano
© The New York Times

I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.

The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.

Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.

Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.

What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost).

At long last...the showdown we were waiting for
At long last…the showdown we were waiting for

An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.

Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.

I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.

At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).

Let’s hope for much more of TV’s best thriller.

● ● ●

lifeafterlife

Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?

Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.

We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.

What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.

Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.

Posted in Baseball, Music, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Cool November

Less than two months left in 2014, but the entertainment couldn’t be better.

Late to the party again, but I’ve been meaning to say a word or two about the season-ending episode of “Masters of Sex” which aired several weeks ago. That double twist was totally delicious. First, learning that Ethan Haas, Bill’s former rival, was the man behind Dr. Kaufman, Bill’s current competitor in the race to publish, only to be capped by the appearance of former Provost Barton as the man who caused the squelch at Bill’s request. Each plot turn was an unexpected pleasure.

These developments, plus Ginny’s losing custody of her kids (it’ll never last—her ex is a flake), should get “Masters of Sex” started on a dramatic Season Three when it returns. I can’t wait.

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World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game SevenWhat a delightful end to October.

As a result of concentrated lobbying by her many fans, Joyce Di Donato, Kansas City’s own, was invited to sing the National Anthem prior to start of Game 7 of the World Series. She did it a cappella, tossing in a couple of blue notes and at least one simplified Handel progression. Her rendition was very much reflective of her personality—no muss, no fuss, but straightforward and straight from the heart. Brava. Too bad the Royals, this year’s Cinderella team, didn’t complete the dream by winning.

This is definitely Joyce’s New York year. She’s one of the artists featured in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives Series, and thus far we’ve had her “Alcina” in concert version (I took a pass—after last season’s “Theodora,” I wasn’t ready for another four-hour baroque extravaganza sans stage action) and a lovely recital that was streamed live and which will remain on the Medici website until the beginning of February. The unifying subject is Venice; I found the second half of the program, featuring songs by Michael Hand and Reynaldo Hahn, to be more engaging than the first.

Joyce returns for two more Carnegie Hall performances in the Perspectives Series and of course (finally!), “La Donna del Lago” at the Met. Good times ahead.

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klinghoffer_2151670b

Yes, I saw it.

I attended the second performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, and to say it was quite an experience doesn’t exactly do it justice.

Security was even tighter than in the weeks post-9/11. Police cars lined the curb in front of Lincoln Center; parade barricades restricted foot traffic onto the plaza. Although the number of protesters across the street seemed minimal, several stood at the barricades speaking to the police while holding their signs that labelled Peter Gelb a Nazi, among other pleasantries. Uniformed police and Lincoln Center security seemed to be everywhere. In the opera house patrons were required to check all briefcases, totes and back packs; pocketbooks were thoroughly searched and detector wands were in use. A number of men in suits wearing security badges patrolled the lobbies as well as the auditorium during the performance.

Despite all this, the atmosphere was more subdued than tense. Once the performance started and the first of John Adams’ extraordinary choruses began, the focus became the music. The opera played somewhat differently than I had anticipated. That Bach’s Passions served as a model for Adams was quite evident; I was also reminded of Berlioz’s “secular oratorio,” “The Damnation of Faust,” in which the artists spend more time singing at each other rather than to each other. “Klinghoffer” is very contemplative; most of what you hear takes place in the characters’ heads. Only when Leon Klinghoffer confronts one of the terrorists who responds in diatribe, and at the very end, when the Captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband has been murdered, do characters truly interact. Actually the chorus is the true leading character in “The Death of Klinghoffer.” By turns portraying Palestinians, Israelis and passengers on the Achille Lauro, it has the most extraordinary music in the opera, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus was perfection.

It speaks volumes about the state of the world that a mob of willfully ignorant morons, the majority of whom know nothing of the art form and in fact needed a map to find the opera house in front of which they protested, could halt an HD telecast intended for people who have loved opera for decades. I’m one of them, and my biggest regret over this entire controversy is that the national and indeed, the international, opera audience was deprived of the ability to experience this production of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” I can only hope that the Met management has learned that caving to bullies is not how an arts organization should be run.

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yannick

I recently attended an incredible performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 by the Phildaelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Yannick Nézut-Seguin was a man with a plan, shaping the work as few conductors do. I don’t always agree with his vision of a work, but I always respect his choices—the man is frequently amazing.

In this case I was glad we were promised a resurrection, because the first movement was fierce, unrelenting, and in fact quite scary to hear on Halloween night. There was total commitment from the orchestra throughout the performance; the brass, especially the trombone section, was extraordinary. Nézut-Seguin has the pulse of this work—I especially enjoyed his reading of the “Knaben Wunderhorn” movements. The soloists were Angela Meade, whose soprano really did fill the auditorium, and Sarah Connolly, who performed a lovely “Urlicht.” The bravos and curtain calls were well-earned indeed.

Next up: Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtstensk” at the Met. Looking forward to seeing that bad girl do her stuff.

Posted in Books, Music

The Comedian Harmonists

comedian_harmonists
The Comedian Harmonists (L to R): Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Edwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommerman and Ari Leschnikoff

This photograph, which I first saw in the New York Times about twenty years ago, was my introduction to the Comedian Harmonists, one of the best vocal groups of the last century. Their history, as equally celebrated as their music, is a poignant story of lives interrupted and careers cut short by the Nazi regime.

Organized in Berlin in 1927, the Comedian Harmonists had a unique sound, though one quite reflective of Jazz Age music popular on both sides of the Atlantic. In descending vocal order, the group consisted of a high (lead) tenor, a second tenor, a swing vocalist who specialized in imitating musical instruments, a baritone and a bass. Mirroring the dance bands of that era, with their alto saxes wailing in the treble while a tuba or bass sax rumbled below, the Comedian Harmonists’ songs emphasized the same wide spectrum of sound. Their music featured leads sung by tenor Leschnikoff and bass Biberti, but the inner voices of second tenor Collin and baritone Cycowski were just as essential, if not more so, as were the arrangements by Frommerman, the group’s founder and faux instrumentalist, accompanied by Bootz at the piano.

Their repertoire covered a great deal of musical ground: traditional German folk songs, marches, novelty numbers about cactuses and crocodiles, classical pieces, operetta and popular tunes in at least four languages. My favorite songs are the contemporary numbers: the tango “Gitarren spielt auf,” “Wochenend und Sonnenschein” (“Happy Days Are Here Again”), “Du Armes Girl von Chor” (so very 20’s) and “In der Barzum Krokodil,” with a sly intro borrowed from the Nile Scene of Verdi’s “Aida.”

The Comedian Harmonists featured some wonderful arrangements, especially their version of “Stormy Weather” recorded in German (“Ohne Dich”) and French (“Quand il pleut”) with a lovely lead by second tenor Erich Collin. I’m also fond of their version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” again in French (“Tout le jour, tout le nuit),” as well as the Italian “Ah Maria, Mari” with the soaring lead of Ari Leschnikoff, seconded by baritone Roman Cycowski, who stretches quite successfully into tenor territory. But if I had to pick an all-time Comedian Harmonists favorite, it would have to be “Der Onkel Bumba aus Kalumba tanzt nur Rumba,” perhaps their most intricate arrangement with its breakneck syncopation and bluesy ending. So much fun and a joy to hear.

Comedian Harmonists II

While the Comedian Harmonists were a true product of Weimar Germany, they soon ran into difficulty when the Nazis came to power. Three of the singers were of Jewish origin, though Frommerman and Cycowski were not observant, and both sides of Collin’s family had converted long before his birth. Because the group was an international money-maker, it was allowed to continue, though with a dwindling performance and recording schedule. Things finally ended in 1935 when the Comedian Harmonists were banned outright, with the Jewish contingent temporarily relocating to Austria and later to Australia, restaffing and performing as the Comedy Harmonists. Although Biberti, Bootz and Leschnikoff regrouped with additional singers as the Meistersextett, issues with the Nazis continued. Their repertoire, the majority of which had been written by Jewish composers, was gutted; their remaining novelty numbers were later banned as too frivolous for the war effort.

The Comedian Harmonists never reunited as a group. Their post-war lives took divergent paths: for years Frommerman and Collin tried unsuccessfully to revive their musical careers, forming and reforming other vocal groups; Leschnikoff suffered one financial disaster after another; and Biberti became an antique dealer and master wood craftsman. Bootz remained a performing musician and club impresario, but Cycowski’s life took the most radical turn. Following his father’s murder at the hands of Polish Nazi sympathizers, he rededicated himself to his faith and became a cantor, active until his death at the age of 97.

Interviews with the then-surviving members of the group appear in Eberhard Fechner’s 1976 documentary “Sechs Lebensläufe” (“Six Life Stories”) which, sad to say, isn’t commercially available in a version with English subtitles. However, the entire film (actually a two-parter made for German television) is available on YouTube. Even if you don’t know a word of German, it’s worth watching the first several minutes just to see Leschnikoff and Cycowski react to hearing their old recording of “Gitarren spielt auf.” The tenor smilingly responds with “Schoen” (“Beautiful”), but it’s even more gratifying to watch Cycowski listen as his younger self sings. There’s a justified look of pride in his eyes as he nods his approval and echoes Leschnikoff’s appraisal: “Schoen.”

The Comedian Harmonists have been the subject of other films and books, including the 1997  feature “The Harmonists,” directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, which unfortunately suffers from Hollywooditis in its fictionalized story of the group. However, we finally have a comprehensive history in English by Douglas E. Friedman, “The Comedian Harmonists,”  and there’s even a musical by Barry Manilow (“Harmony”) which has yet to make it to Broadway.

But there’s nothing like seeing the members of the group perform, and once again, YouTube comes through. There’s a truncated version of “Veronika, der Lenz ist da,” with Bootz grinning maniacally at the piano, and an intriguing clip from a 1936 Austrian film in which the Comedy Harmonists strut their stuff with musical instrument imitations. There’s no dearth of the group on CD, but I strongly recommend the remastered “History Records: Comedian Harmonists.” The sound is clear beyond belief, the artistry superb. This one shouldn’t be missed.