Mercoledi Musicale

Many of the opera singers I grew up listening to on the Met broadcasts and eventually saw in various opera houses around the world have joined the roster of the angelic choir.  Some had long retired but others were still in their prime.  I think particularly of my darling Daniela Dessì, Lucia Popp, Arlene Auger, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Jonan Botha – just to name a few who were taken from the stage too early by cancer.  This morning the name of the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky was added to that list.

I only saw him perform live on one occasion – Il Trovatore at the Arena in Verona; he was very much the go-to-Verdi-baritone of the era.  However I never really thought that he was most comfortable in that fach – the velvet was there, the power was there, the drama was there, but somehow it didn’t always mesh.  He seemed most home in the music of his homeland – his Eugene Onegin was unsurpassed and his Prince Yeletsky in Pique Dame made you wonder what the hell Lisa was thinking in rejecting him.

In 2015 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and cancelled performances while he was receiving treatment.  He reappeared at the Met in September of that year and continued to give recitals.  I thought that this excerpt from Songs of the War Years, a concert programme he gave in Moscow and St Petersburg in September of 2016 would be a fitting tribute to this great singer.

Zhuravli (Cranes) is based on a poem by the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov and set to music by composer Yan Abramovich Frenkel.  For Russians it has become a symbol of the soldiers lost in the Second World War.  A more complete history can be found here.

Rest in Peace –Покойся с миром

On this day in 1837: Canadian journalist and politician William Lyon Mackenzie calls for a rebellion against the United Kingdom in his essay “To the People of Upper Canada”, published in his newspaper The Constitution.

Mercoledi Musicale

All-Saints-DamenToday – November 1sr – is All Saints’ Day, the first Feast of Allhallowstide, on which we commemorated the martyrs and those holy ones who have gone on before us and stand around the throne.  Tomorrow is All Souls Day in which we remembered all those who have died; both those in a state of or those in need of grace.  In many places and beliefs the two appear to be merged into one liturgical feast with religious observances and visits to graveyards on both days.

all-saints-herrenI’ve always found it difficult to find a musical choice for All Saints’ Day other than the ubiquitous Ralph Vaughan Williams setting of “For All Thy Saints” which seems to be the hymn of choice in most parishes – Protestant and Catholic.  Unlike All Souls there doesn’t seem to be much that was written specifically for the Feast Day other than complete mass settings and lengthy litanies of ALL the Saints.

The choice for All Souls is a little wider and one of my favourites is Richard Strauss’s setting of Hermann von Gilm’s Allerseelen (All Souls).  One of the poems in his Letzte Blätter (Last Pages) Strauss set it as the eighth and last song of his Acht Lieder aus Letzte Blätter (Eight Songs from Last Pages), his first published (1885) song collection.

Though it was originally written for tenor and piano Strauss himself accompanied his wife, Soprano Pauline de Ahna, in several performances in Belgium and Germany in the 1890s.  He also accompanied mezzo-soprano Elena Gerhardt in performances during his American tour in 1921.

I’ve chosen a performance by Barbara Bonney, the American soprano, known for her Strauss in both opera and recital.

Place on the table the fragrant mignonettes,
Bring in the last red asters,
and let us talk of love again,
as once we did in May.

Give me your hand, so that I may secretly press it;
and if someone sees, it’s all one to me.
Just give me one of your sweet glances,
as once you did in May.

Flowers bloom and spread their fragrance today on every grave;
one day in the year is sacred for the dead.
Come close to my heart, so that I can have you again,
as once I did in May.

On this day in 1894: Thomas Edison films American sharpshooter Annie Oakley, which is instrumental in her hiring by Buffalo Bill for his Wild West Show.

Mercoledi Musicale

Yesterday I mentioned that the late Richard Wilbur wrote the lyrics for at least two of the musical numbers in Leonard Bernstein‘s operetta Candide. Further investigation revealed that the smorgasbord of lyricists who worked on this enigmatic work he was the entrée with John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman (who also wrote the libretto) and Bernstein himself providing side dishes, and the odd garnish.  At one point James Agate contributed material which went unused.   In subsequent metamorphoses additional lyrics have been provided by Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells.

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The Playbill from then 1978 production I saw at the Broadway Theatre.  A very free-flow production as I recall.

After it’s initial Broadway failure in 1956 – a failure attributed in large part to Hellman’s libretto – the piece underwent a rewrite for off-Broadway by Hugh Wheeler in the 1970s.  This was later expanded for use by opera companies – including a production at Stratford in 1978.   A further adaptation was made under Bernstein’s supervision for what he considered the “final version” in 1989.  However Wheeler’s book was to be rewritten once again by John Caird for the National Theatre in 1999.  And so it continues – more than 60 years after it’s premiere is seems that Candide is still a work in progress.

Notably little of what Wilbur contributed has been altered in any of these versions including the two numbers I mentioned yesterday.

Any coloratura soprano worth her high E-flat (there are three of them) from Edita Guberova to Madeline Kahn (yes my dear our beloved Madeline was a trained opera singer) has sung – and in some cases recorded – “Glitter and Be Gay”.  However wonderful they may have been nothing can beat the lady for whom it was written.  Here’s the late Barbara Cook as Cunegonde bemoaning her very well-kept state!

Voltaire’s novelette ends with Candide rejecting his tutor Pangloss’s insistence that all the trials and tribulations have turned out for the best by necessity. Instead he simply insists that “we must cultivate our garden” (il faut cultiver notre jardin). From this phrase Wilbur and Bernstein build an inspiring and inspirted choral finale that just avoids being maudlin – strangely the only performance I have ever heard where the scales are tipped in that direction is conducted by Bernstein at his most sanctimonious. There are several performances out there but I think this one from the BBC Proms manages to capture all the words and avoid any hint of sentimentality.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

On this day in 1648: Boston Shoemakers form the first North American labor organization.

Mercoledi Musicale

One of the first things I noticed was the tremendous wealth of musical and theatrical talent on the Island.  When Marlee, Evan, and I were putting together a 1920s cabaret for the PEI Symphony Orchestra fundraiser we had a wide array of performers and styles we could approach.  We ended up with an eclectic programme of performers reflecting the diversity of entertainers here in PEI.

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Max Keenlyside

The evening began with Ben Aitken at the piano as folks gathered, ordered their Mary Pickfords (a very potent little 1920s cocktail), and perused the auction offerings.  The Cabaret was compèred by Peter Bevan Baker, the leader of the Green Party in our Legislature.  Later on in the evening he multi-tasked and played trumpet in The Little Big Band that provided dance music for the evening.  But first our line up: Katie Kerr – a well-know musical comedy performer, Brendan Howard Roy – a young singer on his way up, Lewis and Peters – a comedy duo on stilts (yes I said stilts!), a talented trio of ladies from the Charlottetown Burlesque (yep we have a Burlesque troupe here on PEI), the Charlottetown Swing dancers, and the young man in the picture to the right  – Max Keenlyside.

Max Keenlyside is a multi-talented performer: ragtime pianist and composer as well a piano restorer.  In this clip he performs the original version of Scott Joplin‘s The Ragtime Dance on a 1927 Mathias Schulz piano which he has recently acquired.  As a surprise during the stop-time section he switches between the Schulz and a 1850s Kirkman upright that he has restored.

Keenlyside also transcribes music – often from audio recordings, old piano rolls, or old manuscripts.  The Silver Swan is the only Scott Joplin piece that was issued on a piano roll rather than in music notation.   Max transcribed it from an original 1914 piano roll and also wrote an historical analysis of this late and until recently disputed Joplin piece.  He plays it on a restored Woodward & Brown square grand piano built in 1851 – a good half century before Joplin composed the piece.   The sheet music shown in the video is another of his projects:  Engraving musical scores in the classic style of old publishing houses.

As I said we have a wealth of talent here on the Island.

On this day in 1971: Having weakened after making landfall in Nicaragua the previous day, Hurricane Irene regains enough strength to be renamed Hurricane Olivia, making it the first known hurricane to cross from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific.

Mercoledi Musicale

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Barbara Cook and Stephen Douglas in the 1966 revival of Showboat.  The only time I saw her on stage.

It seems that almost weekly I’m reading of the passing of  a performer who helped define my youth and taste in theatre, music, and the arts.  Yesterday it was the remarkable Barbara Cook – one of the greats of musical comedies in the 1950-60s.  After a troubled period fighting depression, obesity, and alcoholism, during which her career waned, she return to the spotlight in a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall 1975 with Wally Harper.  It was the beginning of a partnership that was to last until his death in 2004.  And it also relaunched her as a premier cabaret and concert singer.  She was to continue to perform until into her 80s and made her last Broadway appearance singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim in 2010.

Here she is in one of her most famous role – Marion the Librarian in one of the most delightful musicals in the canon, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

I was fortunate to see her on stage back in 1966 when the Lincoln Center brought it’s magnificent revival of Showboat to the stage of the O’Keefe Centre.  It was one of the largest shows to tour with a full size showboat sailing on to the levee with a dream cast of the time:  Constance Towers, Stephen Douglas, William Warfield, David Wayne, Margaret Hamilton, Rosetta LaNoire, and Barbara Cook.  It was probably one of her last “ingenue” roles, her subsequent appearance in book shows were in more mature roles.

But in her concert career she both twitted and celebrated her years as Broadway’s leading ingenue.  And no where was it more celebrated than in her version of “Ice Cream” from She Loves Me. Here she almost 40 years after she created the role of Amelia and she hits that last high B with the same panache and accuracy as she did back in 1963.

Tonight the lights on Broadway will dim in tribute to her and perhaps, if you believe in that sort of thing, the stars in heaven will gleam a little brighter.

On this day in 1173:  construction of the campanile of the Cathedral of Pisa (now known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) begins; it will take two centuries to complete.