Mercoledi Musicale

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.

Mercoledi Musicale

The New Year had hardly begun when news arrived of the death of Roberta Peters, an opera singer who I had grown up listening to on so many Met Saturday afternoon broadcasts.   She had begun studying singing at the age of 13 with William Herman, known to be an exacting and thorough voice teacher.  Herman included the study of French, German and Italian as well as fencing, ballet and gym exercises in his teaching methods.  And he also taught Peters many of the roles she was to sing on stage in North America and Europe.

The 20 year old Roberta Peters on the evening of her unscheduled debut at the Metropolitan Opera on November 17, 1950.  Max Rudolf (l)  the musical administrator and Rudolf Bing the great General Manager of the Met flank her. 

One of those roles was Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  This was to prove serendipitous when at three o’clock on the afternoon of November 17, 1950 Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of the Met, called her to replace an ailing Nadine Connor that evening, a full two months before her scheduled debut.  She had never sung a full opera before, had never been on a stage nor had so much as a piano rehearsal but she delivered a performance that set the tone for the next 35 years.  The critic for the World Telegraph said, “The voice came through the big house as clear as a bell, the notes equally bright and focused and the phrasing that of a true musician. And the girl – she is all of five feet-two – turned in a very smooth job of acting, too. She will bear watching – and listening.”  And watch and listen we did as she sang over 520 performances at the Met until her retirement in 1985.

Peters had just turned 20 when she made that unscheduled debut and here she is two years later in an early TV broadcast singing Zerlina’s first aria “Batti, batti o bel Masetto”.

Though she sang many, what are considered, soubrette roles – Despina, Adele, Adina, Sophie, Rosina, Zerbinetta – she was also sang the more dramatic Gilda, The Queen of the Night, Lucia,  Amina and Susanna.

Her “Deh vieni, non tardar” in Marriage of Figaro had that combination of gentle teasing and a expression of true desire that drove so many Figaros mad with jealousy over the years.

As well as being a well-loved member of the Met she was well-known to TV audiences of the 1950s-1970s.  She held the record for number of appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show – 65 in all.  And she was a frequent guest on  TV talk and variety shows trading quips and appearing in skits with Jack Benny,  Captain Kangaroo, Johnny Carson and Jack Parr.  She was so well known to TV audiences that  American Express had not problem featuring her in their “Do You Know Me?” commercials.

It is perhaps of measure of the lady that she never forgot Rudolf Bing and the way he mentor her and so many other young singers.  When Bing developed Alzheimer’s and became the subject of tabloid fodder with a gold digging young wife who went through his money leaving him in financial distress, she and Teresa Stratas took care of his well-being and visited him until his death in 1997.

On this day in 1915:  D. W. Griffith‘s controversial film The Birth of a Nation premieres in Los Angeles.




Mercoledi Musicale

I had intended something else for today’s musical treat but when I checked the BBC news site this morning I saw the sad news of the death of Victoria Wood.  She was not well-known this side of the Atlantic but she was the undoubted Queen of British Comedy.  Her Dinnerladies, Acorn Antiques and many sketch comedy shows are classics.  And her partnership both as a writer, director, and performer with such wonderful performers as Julie Walters, Ceila Imrie, Patricia Routledge, and Duncan Preston gave us some of the great moments of British comedy.

As a goodbye tribute nothing could beat this display of her incredible talent, as song writer, comedian and performer.  It became – probably much to her chagrin – her signature song:  The Ballad of Barry and Freda (Let’s Do It!).



Wood described the song as ‘A joy to write, a sod to learn,’ and added: ‘I daren’t finish a show without it.  She added: ‘The first time I performed it, a woman at the stage door asked, ‘How long have you been cross-eyed?’

On this day in 1862: Louis Pasteur and Claude Bernard complete the experiment falsifying the theory of spontaneous generation.

Mercoledi Musicale

Claudio Abbado: 1933-2014

It was August of 1969 and I was on my second trip across the Atlantic in three months and my first visit to Salzburg and the summer festival. I was there for a week – a very full week of operas and concerts. There was opera every night and lieder concerts most afternoons. It was meant to be a feast of music and I wasn’t going to miss a morsel. The cast lists were a roll call of many of the big names of the time: Adam, Alva, Zylis-Gara, King, Berry, Bjoner, Evans, Freni, Ludwig, Kraus, Ghiaurov, Stratas, Prey, Janowitz, Gedda et al. And on the podium: Karajan conducting Don Giovanni, Böhm conducting Fidelio, Ozawa, in his operatic debut, murdering Cosi and Claudio Abbado showing us how Il Barbiere di Siviglia was meant to sound.

He had debuted as an operatic conductor at Salzburg the year before with the same production and between him and director/designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle they had created a Barbiere that was, for its time, revolutionary.  It was to be the first Rossini opera in a collaboration that shed new light on La Cenerentola and L’Italiana in Algeri.  His work on the operas of Rossini culminated in the brilliant revival of  Il Viaggio a Rheims at Pesaro in 1984.  Previously I had posted that encore to end all encores, a moment of musical joy: Viaggo, Pesaro 1992.

Since his death on Monday much has been written in tribute to Claudio Abbado and many clips have been posted featuring his Mahler, Verdi, Schubert, Stravinsky and Mozart.  I thought I would remember him with the first piece of music I ever heard him conduct:  the Overture to Il Barbiere di Siviglia.   And from the looks of it this video may have been made around the same time I first saw him.

Unfortunately I missed the chance to see the legendary Boris Godunov at Covent Garden in 1983. I stood out on Bow St one April evening my five pound note discretely held but visible – a sign that you wanted a ticket. Sadly no one was in the mood or seemed to have the need to sell that evening. It was one of the few times I had been disappointed in my attempts to get a last minute seat at the Royal Opera. Though I had many of his recordings and had listen to many of his performances on radio I was not to see him conduct in person until April of 2008. After a period of illness and absence from the opera house he returned to the Teatro Valli in Reggio-Emilia, where his son Daniele was artistic director, to conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio. As I wrote at the time it was one of the most exciting evenings I have spent at the opera in many years – I was simply overwhelmed.

He appeared with his Orchestra Mozart during the concert season March 2010 at the Academia Santa Cecilia.  The programme was Mendelssohn and Mozart with a Mozart encore.  It was a glorious evening – perhaps not as emotional as his Mahler, Beethoven or Verdi  but he gave us the “Italian”, Violin Concerto K216 and the “Jupiter” as I had never heard them before.

After his bout of cancer and other health problems he seemed to have returned to a full and active schedule with his Mahler Youth Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Orchestra Mozart.  My dear friend David records so much of it in his blog post and in the wonderful obituary he wrote for the Guardian.

The man was loved, respected and revered but most of all loved.  And I’ll let David have the final words: Though we’ll hugely miss him, there’s nothing to regret: no-one lived a fuller life, one so much longer than illness would have led anyone to expect.

 REQUIEM aeternam dona ei, et lux perpetua luceat ei. 
Requiescat in pace.

January 22 – 1506: The first contingent of 150 Swiss Guards arrives at the Vatican.

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Mercoledi Musicale

For some strange reason  – perhaps good marketing by the Austrian Tourist Board – Vienna is linked emphatically with New Year’s and celebrations of seeing out the old and bringing in the new.

But perhaps it is not so strange – Vienna is the birthplace of so much of what was new in the 20th century.  And much of the history of Europe and the Western world in that century can be traced to the Imperial City of the Hapsburgs.  Modern music, art, philosophy, psychiatry, political and economic theory have many of their roots in a city known for living in the past.  The roots of two devastating World Wars that defined much of the century can be traced to the capital of one of the last dynastic Empires.

Now lest this sound like the beginnings of a rant against Vienna and all the gemütlichkeit associated with the city,  I will say that it has become one of my favourite cities in the world.  It took a long time for that affection to develop – there is always a certain melancholy about the city and Austria is a country that I have had a love-hate feeling for since my first visit in 1969.  But develop it has: I love Vienna and I love all the schmaltz that goes with it.  And as always one of my, and it appears some 50 million people in 90 countries, New Year’s traditions is to listen to the Wiener Philharmoniker New Year’s Day Concert.  

This year’s concert was a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of the First Great War.  Well known for his Peace activism, particularly in the Middle-East,  for the second time in five years Daniel Barenboim was asked to be the guest conductor.  As always it was a more than enjoyable way of spending the first day of the new year.  

Marta Eggerth and her husband, and often singing partner, Jan Kieprua in one of their international successes: Zauber Der Boheme (The Charm of La Boheme).  They often appeared together on stage in Lehar’s The Merry Widow – Marta estimated that she had sung the part of 2,000 times in five languages. 

As one Viennese music tradition continued on January 1, 2014, a treasured exponent of that tradition had passed from the scene only a few days before.  Marta Eggerth was the last link to the great Austro-Hungarian tradition of operetta as created by Lehár, Kalman, Stolz, Straus and Sieczyński.  Her remarkable career – a debut at the age of 11 and a final appearance on the stage in 2011 at the age of 99.  Her longevity can be attributed to many things – she said she never drank anything other than the odd glass of Tokay for medicinal purposes – including a rock solid technique, a god-given voice and the good sense to use it for what it could do.  And what it did it did without parallel even at the age of 80 in this clip from a New York concert.  Of course the voice is not what it was – how could it be, voices like people age but this one aged like the Tokay she loved.  It may not all be there the way it once was but what you hear is the authentic voice of the Vienna of the waltz, the polka, the csárdás –
gemütlichkeit as no tourist brochure or website could capture it.  Marta Eggerth sings Rudolph Sieczyński’s Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume.

But it would be unfair to base her fame on a clip from her advancing years. Here is the young Marta – a much beloved international movie star – in 1936 singing that most Viennese of Strauss waltz songs Donanuwalzer (The Blue Danube).

Yes the style of singing is dated by today’s standards but as Laurent said earlier this morning when we were listening to several recordings by Marta: they really don’t make voices like that anymore, do they?  And I had to agree with him: b y any standards there are no voices like that today. 

January 1 – 1773: The hymn that became known as “Amazing Grace“, then titled “1 Chronicles 17:16–17” is first used to accompany a sermon led by John Newton in the town of Olney, England.

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