Look He Made A Hat!


Once again I find myself mourning the passing of someone who has defined much of what I have seen and heard in the world of music for over half a century. Stephen Sondheim has been synonymous with music theatre for the past 65 years first as a lyricist (West Side StoryGypsy) than as one of that rare breed of lyricist/composers (the list of shows is too numerous).

The first Sondheim show I saw on stage was Gypsy with Ethel Merman (who thought Sondheim was too young to compose her kind of song) and then Company when the National company came to Toronto in 1971. It caused a bit of a furor and people actually walked out. I loved it and saw it three times – once as the guest of Ed and Anne Mirvish, but that’s another story. After that every time a new Sondheim show came out I had the album within a day or two of it being issued. A trip to London and the original West End production of Side By Side By Sondheim introduced me to more of his music. I missed a chance to see a matinee of Follies for a somewhat less edifying afternoon at the 55th Street Playhouse, again that’a another story. I was fortunate to catch A Little Night Music with Glynis Johns, Len Cariou and Hermione Gingold on a trip to New York and several years later Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and Cariou on a subsequent trip. After that I had to be satisfied with those albums/CDs as well as television and filmed versions of some of his most exceptional works. Everyone of them remarkable in so many ways including the disparity of their subjects and multiplicity of styles.

But in 1993 there was one fortunate occasion when I was able to spend an evening with Mr. Sondheim – first in the audience at an interview/lecture he gave in Ottawa and than at a small reception afterwards. Several things struck me about him that evening, aside from his obvious talent: his thoughtfulness, respectfulness, and conviviality. During the Q&A section an annoying woman tried to get him to trash Andrew Lloyd Weber. He would not jump at the bait but was respectful of his fellow composer and praised him. She pressed on referring to ALW as being like Puccini and he gently but sternly suggested that if she knew anything about music then surely she meant Debussy. Not to be deterred she then challenged him to agree that the big Musicals (Phantom, et al) were destroying the American Musical Theatre. Clearly exasperated at this point he quietly pointed out that if these things were playing to full theatres it was because they were giving the audiences what they wanted and that was the business of theatre. Fortunately the moderator cut her off at that point – something he should have done two questions before.

We were invited to a reception afterwards and after the group thinned out he invited us to sit and chat over a glass of wine. I never in my life thought that Stephen Sondheim, whom I had just addressed as Mr Sondheim would grasp my hand and say “Just call me Steve, after all we’re having drinks together.” He had just returned from London and he was excited over Julia McKenzie’s performance in a revival of Sweeney Todd. He had also been teaching at Oxford and was impressed with Canadian composer Leslie Arden. He was greatly taken with a musical version of The House of Martin Guerre that she was working on and talked of hopes of a New York production. It was a genial evening of easy conversation and when the time came we walked with him back to his hotel and our parked car.

No more riddles.
No more jests.
No more curses you can’t undo
Left by fathers you never knew
No more quests.
No more feelings.
Time to shut the door.
Just- no more.”

Into the Woods – Stephen Sondheim

Rest in Peace and thank you, Steve.

The word for November 27th is:
Talent /ˈtalənt/: [noun]
1. A natural aptitude or skill.
2. A former weight and unit of currency, used especially by the ancient Romans and Greeks.
Old English talente, talentan (as a unit of weight), from Latin talenta, plural of talentum ‘weight, sum of money’, from Greek talanton . talent (sense 1) is a figurative use with biblical allusion to the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30).
I am not really sure I see the connect between the word as we now use it and the biblical reference but I’ll take the OED’s explanation as gospel.

Mercoledi Musicale

Ella as captured by the magic pen of Al Hirschfeld

They say that music can be one of the greatest therapies during times of stress and I can think of nothing more therapeutic than the voice of Ella Fitzgerald. Her Great American Songbook CDs have been on our player (yes dear reader we still have a CD changer) often over the years.

I had the good lucky to see the “First Lady of Song” on stage twice in the 1970s. The first time was at the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel, I’m guessing around 1972 or 1973. My friend Vicki was – and still is – a devoted Ella fan and she coerced a few of us into pooling our resources and booking a table one evening. It was pretty headed stuff for a gang of kids from the sticks with not a great deal of money. The Imperial Room was the premiere nightclub in Toronto with prices to match. What with the meal (I’m sure we ordered the cheapest things on the menu) and cover charge we had very little left over for a tip. The waiter wasn’t very happy with us and followed us out of the room berating us all the way. We were suitably mortified but we had seen Ella and nothing could spoil our evening.

I’m pretty sure that evening she sang her signature tune and with as much elan as in this 1942 Abbott and Costello film.

On July 14, 1975 my friend André and I, along with at least another 1,498 other people, heard her at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. The Bastille Day concert took place in the Place de Cardeurs, a large square behind the hotel de ville that was normally a parking lot. When I was looking for the date – I’m getting rather vague on that sort of thing these days – I came across a photo take from the makeshift stage that July evening.

La place de cardeurs, Aix-en-Provence, July 14, 1975 – can you find me in the crowd?

I didn’t remember the crowd being that large but I do remember Ella making her exit in a limo surrounded by adoring fans calling her name. I’m not sure if that wasn’t the same year a tenor jumped off the stage and got into a fist fight with a gentleman who had booed him. French fans can be very demonstrative.

If anyone knew their way around a song it was Ella and her Great American Songboooks gave her the best of lyrics and music. And she gave her best to them. Though this version of Rogers and Hart’s Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered has sub-titles with Ella you don’t need them.

She was known for her collaboration with some of the greats of the jazz world: Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Ellis, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flannagan, and Duke Ellington. Here she is with Ellington and his orchestra demonstrating her famed ability as a scat singer.

This post is dedicated to my dear Vicki, who I have known most of my life. And who almost 50 years ago talked us into that evening with Ella. As well as so many other great adventures.

The term for April 29th is:
Scat singing
In vocal jazz, scat singing is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all. In scat singing, the singer improvises melodies and rhythms using the voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium

Mercoledi Musicale

It seems that every day or two I hear of the death of someone I grew up listening to or seeing in the musical or theatrical world. Earlier this week Mirella Freni the great lyric soprano died in her hometown of Modena.

I first saw her name in a Glydndebourne programme book back in 1960 where she appeared as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I was to see her in that role nine years later at Salzburg conducted by Herbert Von Karajan. It was Von Karajan who convinced her to move from soubrette roles to the more lyric when he conducted her as Mimi La Boheme at La Scala in 1963. I received her 1964 recording of my favourite Puccini work from my brother and sister-in-law that Christmas. A version that I treasure to this day. Then a film of the Scala production – a major achievement of a young and inspired Franco Zeffirelli – appeared for one night only at the old Imperial Theatre and I was downtown for that one in a flash. Here, from that film, is Freni at her most lyrical telling us of the simple story of Lucia who is called Mimi. And for me she was to be forever Mimi.

Two years after the Don Giovanni I was to see her, again at Salzburg, in Verdi’s Otello. Karajan was taking her into heavier territory – but very much on her own terms – and gone was the flirtatious peasant girl. She was a proud daughter of La Serenissima facing up to the power house that was the Otello of Jon Vickers. For all the beauty of their love duet and drama of their riveting Act III confrontation it was her prayer to the Virgin as Desdemona prepares for bed, and subconsciously her death, that stays in the mind.

Requiem in pace cara Mirella; oggi canti con gli angeli!

The word for February 12 is:
Obligurate /unavailable/: [obscure verb]
Probably means to spend time in feasting
Etymology: irregular from Latin obligūrīre, from ob- ligūrīre to be dainty, lick, lick up.
1623 – The English Dictionarie, or an Interpreter of hard English Words, Henry Cockeram: Obligurate, to spend in belly-cheere.

Mercoledi Musicale

A few weeks back I was musing about the entertainers I grew up with who have died and the memories their passing stirred up.  A month ago there was a true blast from the past in the New York Times that brought back memories of high school, my first tentative steps into the gay world, and the strange but wonderful crowd I hung out with.

“I was just being me. I never tried to explain myself to anyone — they never explained themselves to me.” – Jackie Shane

The story* was about a reclusive retired blues singer living in Nashville who I remember was based in Toronto during the late 1960s and early 70s.  A blues singer who to be honest I thought had probably died a long time ago.  A blues singer who was one of the most popular entertainers in the days of Yonge Street clubs and Toronto the Good.  A blues singer who was transgender in the days when that sort of thing was the subject of not just curiosity but derision and violence.

jackieshane1
A left click will take you to a February 2010 CBC radio documentary: I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane

Though Jackie Shane’s career was centred mainly in the clubs along Toronto’s Yonge Street he also toured with Frank Motley and the Motley Crew.  During one of those tours he appeared on an WLAC-TV’s Night Train, the first all-black music shows on American TV. It is the only known film footage of Jackie performing.

Jackie’s favourite club in Toronto was the Sapphire Tavern on Richmond St just off the Yonge St strip and it was there in 1967 that his show was recorded live for an LP that was the brainchild of Gerry Lincoln who worked at A and A records at the time. Here’s a taste of how Jackie sounded when working an audience – and if reports are to be believed he knew how to work an audience

But the song that made Jackie famous and that became an anthem for the emerging gay community in Toronto and that out in the suburbs we danced to at house parties was this one:

According to the report in the Times Jackie left Toronto in 1971 and moved to LA to look after his widowed mother.  He moved back to his hometown of Nashville in 2008 and has lived a fairly reclusive life since then.  A reissue of the complete record catalogue by archival label Numero Group has reawaken interest in the 77 year old singer and brought him back into the eyes, and ears, of the music world.

“You know, when I’m walking down Yonge Street, you won’t believe this, but you know some of them funny people have the nerve to point the finger at me, and grin, and smile and whisper. But you know that don’t worry Jackie because I know I look good. And every morning I laugh and grin on my way to the bank, because I got mine.”
Jackie Shane – during a live set at the Sapphire Tavern in 1967.

This post is dedicated to Vicki, Charlie, Jon, Debbie, Ricky, Terry, Joe and all those other crazy people I hung out with during those often confusing times. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

*A left click should take you to the article however it may be restricted to NYTimes subscribers at this time.

On this day in 1972: Atari releases Pong, the first commercially successful video game.

Mercoledi Musicale (A Day Late)

In all probability I will be waxing lyrical about Venice in the next few days – I’ve been working on several posts – but in the meantime I thought I’d share one of my favourite artists singing the lyrical praises of one of my favourite cities.

One of the things I miss – amongst so many things – about living in Italy is the opportunity to hear singers like Anna Caterina Antonacci (left).  I was fortunate enough to see her on three occasions during my four years in Europe.  The first was in a searing portrayal of Medea in Cherubini’s opera which opened the season in Torino in November of 2008.  Though I had reservations, serious reservations, about the production about Antonacci herself I had none – I loved her.

The second was a semi-staged performance of Gluck’s Alceste with Gregory Kunde in Athens the following October.  My dear Fotis had insisted I fly over for it and as well as it being an opportunity to see him and visit my beloved Greece it allowed me to experience another facet of Antonacci’s art.  Her grasp of the French style was masterful and the gentle nobility and sacrifice of Alceste – which can often seem, if terribly admirable, also terribly dull dull – had all the doubt and anguish that bargaining with death for the life of a loved one would draw from a human.  It was a remarkable evening made more so by the perfect interplay between Antonacci and Kunde.

It was made even more remarkable because Fotis led me backstage to say hello and congratulation both Mr Kunde and – gasp! – Anna Caterina – her ardent admirers often refer to her as AnnaCat, but as much as I adore her I can’t bring myself to call her that.  Now I have a history of being less than tactful when meeting famous opera singers – I still have nightmares about the Marilyn Horne episode in 1986 – and this meeting was no exception.  In my stumbling efforts to say something other than “I adore you!” I muttered  that I really hadn’t liked Hugo D’Ana’s production in Torino – not her mind you but the production, which it turned out she liked very much!!!!  But Signora Antonacci, ignoring my awkward attempts at retrieval,  flashed me her wonderful smile and said that she would make it up to me by adding me to the guest list for an upcoming private concert in Rome at the American Academy.

And so I found myself wandering the beautiful grounds of Villa Aurelia on the Juniculum Hill on a cool but pleasant December evening; having coffee and chatting about Rossini with Philip Gossett , one of the leading authorities on 19th century opera; and sitting with him and 40 other people in the gilt and white grand salon listening to Anna Caterina accompanied by Donald Sulzen in Echi della Belle Époque, a programme of songs by Fauré, Tosti, Cimara, Toscanini, Respighi and Zandonai.  It is an evolving programme that she and Sulzen have now presented in Europe and North America including a rare and much heralded appearance at New York’s Lincoln Centre last month.  The programme had been well-thought out and beautifully performed with the Tosti English songs and Resphighi’s Cinque canti all’antica as the highlights.

Anna Caterina Antonacci and Donald Sulzen after their concert at Wigmore Hall.
  Sulzen is a brilliant accompanist much in the Gerald Moore vein. At a reception
after the concert he talked a bit with me about how they had chosen the programme
– it was very much a collaborative effort.

The concert had opened with Fauré’s Cinq mélodies de Venise so there was a taste of La Serenissima but it wasn’t until a few months later that she added Reynaldo Hahn’s Venezia cycle.  Of the two I realize that the Hahn is perhaps the more frivolous which is not a word I can ever imagine applying to Antonacci.  However she add a touched of perfumed erotica – and tongue in cheek tartness when needed – to Hahn’s postcard-picturesque tales of moonlit nights on the lagoon.
I have only been able to find five of the six songs posted by yukio84 on YouTube; they are taken from a concert in Firenze this past March.  It may seem like quite a few videos but believe me they are worth it – I only wish that Primavera, the final song was available.

Sopra l’acqua indormenzata – Asleep on the water

A young lady is invited to accompany her lover on a gondola ride on the lagoon in the moonlight.  Her inamorata  is afraid that the moon will be jealous of her beauty – a beauty that is only enhanced by the gentle movement of the waves.  But he does warn her that “Tears will come soon enough, so now is the time for laughter and for love.”

La barcheta – The Little Boat

Another lovesick swain takes his Ninetta out in the evening air in a gondola piloted by the silent, and obviously discreet, Toni. So discreet that the lover assures his beloved Ninetta that should the evening breezes cause her veil to lift and reveal her lovely breasts, that Toni is much too intent on plying his oar to pay any attention. Why he tells her, its almost like we are along here and anything could happen!

L’avertimento – The Warning

The lovely Nana has obviously broken the singer’s heart.  Ah yes there are roses in her cheeks, her breasts are milky white and her voice gentle and sweet “but.. but.. but.. the lovely Nana has the heart of a tiger!”

La Biondina in gondoleta

As their gondola glides across the lagoon the lover rhapsodizes over the beauty of his “blonde” as she lays sleeping, her golden tresses floating in the water.  But he arouses her – from slumber and in other ways also it would appear as he declaims “God what wonderful things I said, what lovely things I did! Never again was I to be so happy in all my life.”


Che pecà! – What a shame!

The gentleman assures the still-lovely (and one feels perhaps loved?) Nina that his days of seeing only her are long since gone. After all she is only a woman – and a fickle one at that so who really cares? But all the same “what a shame!”

That big sigh you heard was me – Anna Caterina and Venice!  Two of my treasured memories! 

10 May – 1849: Astor Place Riot: A riot breaks out at the Astor Opera House over a dispute between actors Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready, killing at least 25 and injuring over 120.

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