Mercoledi Musicale

I’m not sure that Blossom was ever quite that glamorous and it may just be a sly wink at the title of her album.

Many years ago I owned a two record vinyl set – yes gentle reader there was a time when records were made of vinyl and had a hole in the middle that you put on a turn… but I digress – of the slender-voiced Blossom Dearie called My New Celebrity Is You. She had recorded some quirky numbers, some sentimental numbers, some wistful numbers but all witty, sophisticated and as I was to discover very Blossom stuff. I became a convert to the cult of Blossom and her records and then CDs became, and remain, standard listening in our household.

I say slender-voiced but behind that little girl whisper was a iron clad technique that made every word audible and a jazz piano style that was with the best of the bred. Some of her live albums, recorded at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, show the ability to hold a room of smoking, drinking, and sometimes partying club goers with a whisper that filled the room.

The title song of that first album was one of those “list songs” updated by songwriter Johnny Mercer for Blossom. Of course many of the “celebrity” names are lost in the mists of time to all but us old folks but the backup group is a “celebrity” list unto itself: Toots Thielemans – Harmonica, Jay Berliner – Guitar, Ron Carter – Bass, Grady Tate – Drums, Hubert Laws – Flute, George Devins – Percussion

One of her many albums included one that is often on our changer: Blossom Dearie Sings Comden and Green. The 60 year partner ship of two of the most creative talents in American musical theatre and cinema is beyond my scope to even start writing about. Let’s just say if you enjoyed Singin’ In the Rain, The Band Wagon, Auntie Mame, or Wonderful Town then you know Betty Comden and Adolph Green. If you’ve ever heard The Party’s Over, Just In Time, or, my own favourite, Some Other Time then you know Comden and Green.

On this day in 1858: The first Hallé concert is given in Manchester, England, marking the official founding of The Hallé orchestra as a full-time, professional orchestra.

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.

Gaie comari di Windsor

Falstaff goes courting the ladies of Windsor.
The great French baritone Victor Maurel
who created Verdi’s Iago and Falstaff.

When I first heard it I remember being puzzled by Falstaff.  This wasn’t the Verdi  I worshiped and adored: the Verdi of the soaring aria, the tearful father-daughter duets or the grand ensembles.  This was a Verdi of parlando, ariosi that came and went quickly, quartets that turned into duets that became octets, all with nary a pause for breath or applause.  And to my youthful ears (I was 11 or 12 at the time) it was all pretty unmelodic and didn’t really sound the way opera should.  It seemed that Verdi was reverting to the style of Monteverdi or Cavalli – composers whose works I was also struggling with at the time.

Now to be fair two things – well okay three if you consider my youthful ignorance – should be taken in to consideration.  First:  Falstaff was a work that went largely unperformed in the venue I had access to at the time – the Met broadcasts and tours, and the Canadian Opera Company.  Second: The only recording I had at hand was the famous and much lauded Toscanini version.  To many this may sound like apostasy but I have grown to dislike Toscanini’s Falstaff.  Yes I know he has a direct link with the work but I find his performance driven, brittle and utterly lacking in humour – much like the man himself.  I was to discover that there was more joy, wit and humanity in the piece than in almost any other opera I had ever heard.

Falstaff was a signature role for Geraint Evans – seen here in
1964 at the Met.  Falstaff bemoans the unfairness of life after
his dunking in the Thames.

Part of that realization came in 1964 when I journeyed to New York to see the first performance the Met had given in over twenty years.  It was at the old house, the production was by a young Franco Zefferelli and the cast though less than stellar had been molded into a cracker-jack ensemble by Leonard Bernstein, making his debut at the house.  Apparently I was mistaken – the old man from Busseto knew exactly what he was doing.

Performances became more frequent – even the COC did it for the first time back in 1982 with Louis Quilico; more recordings appeared led by many of the great conductors: Von Karajan, Solti, Bernstein, Guilini, Davis, Abbado and Muti.  Though none were perfect – if such a thing could exist – all were to reveal – to my ears – the autumnal as well as comedic subtleties and colour of the miraculous collaboration between Shakespeare, Boito  and Verdi.

Louis Quilico as Falstaff with the COC in 1982.

After the COC in ’82 I though I was to hear many records and see several productions on TV or DVD I wasn’t to see another live performance until Rome in 2010 – a production that I wrote about at the time.  Even for all its drawbacks I came out of the theatre that December evening and walked back home in the crisp early morning air – the Zefferelli scene changes added almost an hour to the performing time – feeling that all was right with the world.

After attending the COC’s most recent production last Friday night I came out of the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto feeling much the same way.  What I had seen was in no way perfect but it left me feeling that despite all the troubles in the world, despite what the media was reporting, despite any personal peeves I might have at the moment, there was still much that was right with the world. 

Gerald Finley made his first appearance as Verdi’s Fat Knight last Friday
evening at the opening of the COC season.  It was a more than auspicious
role debut and it is a performance that will only grow richer as time goes by.  

Hopefully by the end of the week I will have gathered my thoughts on Friday night’s performance and written a bit more about it.

October 7 – 1919: KLM, the flag carrier of the Netherlands, is founded. It is the oldest airline still operating under its original name.

Mercoledi Musicale

Along the Tevere looking towards Ponte di Sant’ Angelo and San Pietro.  The river seems very high but the foliage is glorious and I am homesick.

I was planning to get over to Roma this month but the best planned lays of mice and men oft go astray. A few things have got in the way and I may have to forgo the joy of seeing my friends there for a few more months. For some reason this song from On the Town seemed an appropriate way to express my disappointment.

Eileen Farrell was one of those singers who could truly manage cross-over.  Though she did appear on the stages of several American opera house – including several seasons at the Met – she was better known for her concert appearances.  Her opera repertoire roles from Gluck’s Alceste to Berg’s Wozzeck and in concerts she was known for her wide ranging repertoire – she could spin a fine thread of sound – her breath control was incredible – in Debussy and get down and gutsy with the blues.

The accompanist is, of course, Leonard Bernstein the composer of On the Town.  I only saw him conduct once – the 1964 Falstaff at the old Met and I can’t say I am as enamoured of Bernstein as many of my generation are/were.  Unusually for him, in this video, he allows the spotlight to shine almost exclusively on Farrell.

To Walter, Robert, Linda, Gayle, Diana, Marco, Larry, Vincenzo, Anna, Peter, Joe, Mark, Carol Ann, Craig, Jolka and all my dear friends in Roma:

But let’s be glad for what we’ve had
And what’s to come.
There’s so much more embracing
Still to be done, but time is racing.
Oh, well, we’ll catch up
Some other time.

music by Leonard Bernstein

24 October – 1901: Annie Edson Taylor becomes the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

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Mercoledi Martedi Musicale

For some reason those early morning walks earlier this week reminded me of a lovely ballad from On The Town, the Bernstein-Comden-Green love note to New York City. As I recall as he walks alone in the early morning Gabe, a sailor on leave, muses on being in a “Lonely Town.” In this concert performance Thomas Hampson sings it beautifully and Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the dance sequence that follows it with a light, graceful touch.

Sadly this song was not in the film version, which used only 3 of Bernstein’s numbers including the iconic New York, New York.

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