Marc Blitzstein at 100 by Joseph Pehrson, Copyright 2005
Produced and directed by Leonard Lehrman at the People's Voice Cafe of the Workmen's Circle, 45 E. 33rd St., New York, NY, March 5, 2005
Leonard Lehrman has spent years researching the life and music of composer Marc Blitzstein, and the result was evident in an engrossing and varied concert that he assembled for the centennial of Blitzstein's birth.
Of particular interest in this concert was the variety evidenced in Blitzstein's music, from serious art songs, to pop-cabaret, to theater plays. Although Blitzstein had written some instrumental music, none was presented at this concert that was entirely vocal. Dr. Lehrman accompanied all selections at the piano with an alternate pianist, John Craven, for the final theater piece and the addition of percussionist Don Levine.
Lehrman is a prodigious sight-reader. This evening, however, he had obviously practiced, and everything was at a high performance level, including the acting that he did in the final theater work.
Unfortunately, the Workman's[sic] Circle is not really a professional performance space, although it is a province of well-thinking and well-intentioned activists. Looking more lie a school cafeteria minus the tables rather than a theater, this venue detracted somewhat from what was, overall, a good concert and nice experience. At least some donuts and coffee were served as an upside.
There were some other less than professional moments, such as stops in the middle of the concert to take photos, and "false starts" in two or three of the pieces.
On the other hand, there were real highlights, too, like the incredible performance of Lorinda Lisitza of "Few Little English," a piece Blitzstein wrote for Lotte Lenya. Lisitza really lives this piece, with a dramatic portrayal and humor that made it one of the centerpieces of the entire evening.
Also novel and intriguing was Lehrman's reconstruction of a 1937 radio play by Blitzstein called I've Got the Tune. Playing Mr. Musiker in a kind of intellectual's twist on The Music Man was Lehrman himslef, and his acting and minimal singing in this work showed his knowledge and enthusiasm for Blitzstein cultivated over many years. This theater piece was originally presented by Lehrman when he was a long-haired activist at Harvard in 1970. Here he's doing the same piece 35 years later, which shows persistence if nothing else! This music-play is, basically, about a composer (a novelty in itself!) who invents a tune that is then stolen by about every conceivable concern, including a right-wing exclusionist society. Eventually, Mr. Musiker is eaten by an indoctrinee of the secret society. Equally compelling, though, was a portrayal of an "upper crust" arts salon, directed by a Mem. Arbutus, sung by Victoria Tralongo. In an obvious parody of Pierrot lunaire, Mme. Arbutus takes the simple tune of Mr. Musiker and turns it into an extremely complex and hyper-dramatic travesty. The concluding scene employed the full forces of the Workmen's Circle Chorus, a well-intentioned body of, mostly, amateurs who had the necessary spirit to play themselves: activists looking for a theme and a cause, eventually finding it in the tune of Mr. Musiker. This entire theatrical sketch was thoroughly entertaining and different. It's a shame more people can't experience it.
There were many fine purely musical moments, such as four excerpts from Sacco and Vanzetti. The soaring trio from this opera, "The Hills of Amalfi," was nicely sung by Helene Williams, Cameron Smith, and Lars Woodul. Illuminating were also some early Blitzstein efforts, the 3 Circular Canons with texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay that were fairly abstract in places. These early pieces were written when Blitzstein was still a student of Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg. Also substantial were Blitzstein settings of Walt Whitman, including three movements from the cantata, "a word out of the sea."
Lehrman provided ample program notes to guide the listener through Blitzstein's varied musical journey. A real expert on the topic of Blitzstein, Lehrman needs funding and attnetion to take his efforts to the next level.