Thoughts on Trying to Make Music That Matters
As the world seems to be getting crazier, not to say more depressing/depressed, every day, with cuts and freezes and the downward spiral of what has come to be called "the 99%" of us, one recalls the descriptive term made famous by Tom Lehrer as an image that could well describe the incipient mood of our age: "One begins to feel like... a Christian Scientist with appendicitis."
by Leonard J. Lehrman (c) 2011
New Music Connoisseur, Fall/Winter 2011, v. 19 #2, pp. 18-19
[Words in brackets did not appear in printed version.]
Phrases like that abounded in the lyrics and commentary of the latest edition of Tomfoolery, based on Lehrer's words & music, in 4 performances at the York Theatre in the 3 days before Halloween. [Lehrer himself did not attend, telling this writer on the phone, "To quote Alma Mahler when asked if she would attend the funeral of Franz Werfel," the third husband who had died on her (after Gustave Mahler and Walter Gropius): "I never go." "Alma" is of course the title and subject of one of Lehrer's most musically-inspired songs, but it's not in the Tomfoolery that Cameron Mackintosh put first put together in 1980, which does however include 26 of Lehrer's 37 songs from the 1950's & '60s.]
Music Director/Pianist Michael Rice performed "The Old Dope Peddler" solo. All the other numbers were delivered by the cast which, with 3 men (each with 2 solos) and only 1 woman, lent a distinctly gay aura to many of the numbers, esp. "When You Are Old and Gray" (using the additional words written for the male partner in 1980) and "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," probably the most musically lovely of Lehrer's creations when sung by a woman, here crooned by 3 men. Stephanie D'Abruzzo's rendition of "In Old Mexico" shone with Latina-ish glee, but lacked the down-to-earth Jewish sarcasm present in the subtext. Ben Liebert's solo "My Home Town" could have benefited from ensemble participation. Likewise Michael McCormick's "Masochism Tango." But the star of the show, and Lehrer's favorite - to whom he sent regards, having seen him in an earlier York Theatre production, which inspired him to send a contribution - was Josh Grisetti; he triumphed in Lehrer's rhymed setting of "The Elements" of the periodic table to Arthur Sullivan's music for the Modern Major General's song from Pirates of Penzance, first at a moderate tempo, then speeded up, with only a few small mispronunciations. [It was my pleasure to acquaint him, and the audience, at the talkback after Saturday's matinee, with Lehrer's own unpublished encore which he gave me 40 years ago: "The Elements According to Aristotle": "There's earth and water and fire and air." [Period.] (The only recorded performance I know of that piece is mine, posted here on YouTube.
I also had the pleasure of acquainting the audience with another Lehrer gem written since the creation of Tomfoolery, his "Hanukkah in Santa Monica," with its partial catalog of the Jewish holidays, along with my own "Goot Yuntif," that completes them. For 20 years I've been performing that song of his, along with my rejoinder, with his approval--also on YouTube--here--most recently as an intermezzo in a Kosher Kabaret with Cantor Barry Black and Yiddish theatre star Joanne Borts at Jericho Jewish Center on Nov. 6.]
York Theatre has also been the host of many delightul works in progress, including Seymour Barab's Gods of Mischief last February 10, 2011. It was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of another of his works, Songs of Perfect Propriety, in 2 volumes, comprising 24 settings of Dorothy Parker poems, recorded by Barbara Cook in the 1950s and published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1984. Especially appealing are #8, 10-13, 16, 22 & 24. [(Seymourbarab.com proudly quotes an article by this writer from this publication, describing Barab as "one of the great masters of late twentieth century comic operas." This past year he asked me: "What do I have to do to become a great master of the twentieth-century?" to which I replied: "Get email." Which I'm happy to say he now has!)]
Barab was present at the Oct. 9, 2011 Klavierhaus recital by Karen Jolicoeur, the highlight of which was the Barab Lullaby (#11). She was also heard to advantage in a lovely excerpt from Michael Dellaira's Secret Agent opera, also a lullaby, built around the traditional Welsh "All Through the Night." Her capable accompanist, Bill Lewis, was a bit self-effacing in the first half; more of an assertive partner in the second. The program also included works by Strauss, Granados, Charpentier; Rorem, Copland, Weill, Thomas Carlo Bo and David Wolfson.
Another pleasure brought us by York Theatre was a revival the week before Tomfoolery of Mira J. Spektor's and June Siegel's 1972 The Housewives' Cantata, with a number of songs added from Spektor's short musical, Give Me Time, which I had the pleasure of recording with Helene Williams and Richard Holmes for Original Cast Records (still unreleased, unfortunately, though Capstone Records did release our versions of "The Adultery Waltz" and "Take Me Home Tonight." [The latter (not the former) Helene performed at our wedding in 2002. With Cary Bair we also recorded the number "Sex" on an album called Songs for Naturists: Live from the Naked Front. The director and composer have promised to send us new lyrics written especially for this production.] As in the Lehrer, the York gave this work a decidedly gay flavor, though this time the cast consisted of 1 man and 3 women, two of whom married each other in a new plot twist at the end.
Bob Goldstone, who'd worked on the show since its inception 40 years ago, was the capable arranger and pianist/music director. Singers Kerry Conte, Jennifer Hughes, Anne Tolpegin, and the impressively wide-ranged Mark Campbell were all delightful.
Mira J. Spektor was born in Berlin, emigrated to Vienna at age 3 in 1933, thence to France in 1938, and then the US. She had never been back to Berlin until 1985, when she returned for the European premiere of her Holocaust opera, The Lady of the Castle, produced by the Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin.
Music relating to the Holocaust has also been a theme of the Motyl Chamber Ensemble, the core of which is the Motyl String Quartet, which made their debut on Kristallnacht at Weill Hall, Nov, 9, 2003. Eight years later, to the date, co-sponsored by the Long Island Composers Alliance, the Puffin Foundation, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and others, they performed music written specifically for them by Joel Mandelbaum and this writer, along with works by Laurence Dresner, Herbert Rothgarber, George Cork Maul, and Julie Mandel at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. A recording of the concert was made and will be posted on the school's website. "Motyl" is Czech for "Butterfly," and refers to the collection of poetry by children at the Czech concentration camp Terezin titled "I Never Saw Another Butterfly."
The Holocaust, and especially Terezin, is the focus of Lori Laitman's Naxos American Classics CD "Vedem," commissioned and recorded by the Seattle-based Music of Remembrance in 2010. The title refers to a secret journal published there in 1942-44. The libretto is by David Mason. Joseph Crnko conducts The Northwest Boychoir, who sing fervently, along with soloists Ross Hauck, tenor, and Angela Niederloh, mezzo-soprano, who is also the soloist in the cycle that fills out the album, "Fathers" (2002, rev. 2010), on poems by Anne Ranasinghe and David Vogel. A piano trio in the cycle is joined by Laura DeLuc, clarinetist, in the oratorio.
[Another CD of note that came to our attention recently is Wild Sunrises: Organ Music of Carson Cooman, featuring the brilliant organist Harry Lyn Huff. Cooman is an impressive organist and choirmaster himself. I had the privilege of having his choir (under his assistant Christian Lane) sing my "We Wish You Peace" at my Harvard Reunion Sept. 23, 2011 - hearable here on YouTube. Cooman's output must be astounding. At the age of 39 he is already up to opus 879 and counting. Not even Mozart, only Schubert and Telemann could compare in that degree of prolificity! And several of the 17 pieces recorded here are quite nice. I particularly liked #4, 10 (Blessing), 12, and 15 (Berceuse).
Members of my Harvard Class Reunion all remembered the occupiers of University Hall April 9, 1969, whose brutal eviction by the police triggered the retirement of President Nathan Pusey, who labeled ours the "Worst Class Ever." Classmates, taking that as a point of pride, put it on a t-shirt! In the organ postlude which I was invited to write and play for our Class Memorial Service Sept. 23, 2011, I composed a fugue based on the musical letters "HArvArD-rADCliFFE rEFlECtionS: 'worSt ClASS EvEr" - posted on YouTube here.
Most of my classmates that weekend were surprised to learn about Occupy Wall Street. "Who are those folks?" they asked. "Young people, like us!" I replied. Visiting Zuccotti Park, not so easy for one who does not ride the subway, inspired participation in other events like Occupy Nassau in Mineola, where Helene Williams & I entertained with our song from last spring, "Republicans" -posted here -- and received the constructive suggestion that perhaps that word in the song should be changed to "The One Percent." Maybe...
Composer/conductor Gene Glickman had an interesting post on Portside.com Nov. 10, 2011, regarding that very subject:
Re: REWIND - A Week of Quotes & Cartoons
Monday's Tuesday's Thursday's and Saturday's cartoons this week all target Republicans.
It is so easy to attack the Republicans, and, I would have thought, not at all Portsideish!
In the mean time, not a single cartoon targets the Democrats. Have you dropped the idea that you "provide material of interest to people on the left"? Have you substituted the idea that the Democrats are the good guys and the Republicans are the bad guys?
Or maybe you nowbelieve that you provide material of interest to people on the left of the Democratic Party.
I expect more from you than that.]
A [more] balanced take on political satire, descended in part from the legacy of Jay Ward's and Bill Scott's "Rocky & Bullwinkle" and perhaps Cole Porter's Silk Stockings (based on the Ernst Lubitch film Ninotchka) is Iron Curtain, presented Nov. 5-27, 2011 by Prospect Theater Company, after a long gestation of workshops, beginning back in 2006 when their Propaganda Cabaret included nuggets like "Guns Don't Kill People" and this writer's "Threescore Years Ago." It's the first of a promising set of 3 shows the group is doing; the others being the new Myths and Hymns by Adam Guettel Jan. 28-Feb. 26, 2012 and a revival of Nymph Errant by (appropriately enough) Cole Porter in July.
The zany story of Iron Curtain takes place in a 1955 cartoonish USSR, only slightly more insane than the contemporaneous McCarthyist USA, and fantasizes a Soviet musical "Damnable Yankees," which, with immigration, becomes the Massapequa Community Theater's "Damnable Reds." Susan DiLallo, Peter Mills, and Stephen Weiner are the co-conspirators of book, lyrics & music, respectively, impressively choreographed by Christine O'Grady, and directed by Cara Reichel. Standouts in the cast of 15 were Shirley Dooley, Jenn Gambatese, Bobbi Kotula as the German dominatrix director, David Perlman as cheery lyricist Murray Finkel, and Todd Alan Johnson as the depressed composer, Howard Katz.
[And speaking of composers fighting depression, readers of this magazine will want to know that Composers Concordance Co-Founding Co-Director Joseph Pehrson is now recuperating at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where he is working on a musical piece for Helene Williams, commissioned by the Prof. Edgar H. Lehrman Memorial Foundation. Please visit and encourage him!
Postscript: Joe has recovered and is now home with his wife, Linda.]
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