CULTURE & THE ARTS:
Schumann on Broadway, Bernstein at the "Y" AUFBAU 62:22 Oct. 25, 1996 p13
[original title: Schumann's Songs on Broadway Bernstein's in the Concert Hall]
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Oct. 12, 1996 894 words
Two sets of great poems, one German, one American, form the backbone of two impressive works: Jon Marans' Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Old Wicked Songs, built around the Heinrich Heine-Robert Schumann Dichterliebe ; and Leonard Bernstein's Songfest , settings of writings by 13 American poets for solos, duets, a trio and three sextets of singers with orchestral accompaniment.
Bernstein's 1977 cycle was born of the frustration of seeking an appropriate text for an opera. Though he did later complete his one fulllength opera, A Quiet Place (built around his earlier successful one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti ), that work has yet to be produced in New York, and many will argue that he never did find a good, original text for it. Among the titles toyed with during the composition of Songfest are the revealing "Notes Towards an American Opera," "Six Characters in Search of an Opera," and "A Secular Service."
This was a time of self-searching for Bernstein (1918-1990), and it is reflected in his choice of texts. The cycle attempts to reconcile such variant influences as love, homosexuality and Ivesian tonal ambiguity (in the setting of Whitman's "To What You Said..."); Hispanic and black pop (in "A Julia de Burgos" and a combination of poems by Langston Hughes and June Jordan); Mahlerian seriousness (to the Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet "What My Lips Have Kissed"); stark Brittenian vocal counterpoint (three women sing Anne Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband"); and word-note formulas inherited from Marc Blitzstein and Kurt Weill covered over with twelve-tone jazz and belly-dancing (to poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso). The composer was experiencing bitter disappointment as he publicly left his wife for a male lover, returning to her only shortly before her death. He was also quite depressed, he told me the night after the work's New York premiere, due to the less than warm initial reception his work had from major critics. He had obviously poured a great deal of himself into it; but the wildly varying styles seemed difficult to absorb then, housed under one roof.
Michael Barrett, Bernstein's assistant for the last years of his life and now Director of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y, as well as co-director of the New York Festival of Song, premiered an orchestrally scaled-down version of the work to open the Y's season October 9 with the debut of his "Janus Ensemble," an apparent effort at replacing Gerard Schwarz's 25-year-old Chamber Symphony of New York, which has now moved from the Y to Lincoln Center. It was an auspicious beginning in which Bernstein regulars Peter Kazaras and Kurt Ollmann along with soprano Rosa Vento shone to perfection. May the ensemble live up to its name and continue to look both backward and forward for inspiration.
Searching for one's own identity through love is also a theme of both the 16 songs in Dichterliebe and the Promenade Theater production of the play Old Wicked Songs, which takes its title from the cycle's finale: "Die alten, boesen Lieder." Hal Robinson is nearly perfect as the old Viennese professor of voice who takes his reluctant student through the Heine-Schumann work from beginning to end with lessons on life, history, politics, and art. In the course of three weeks in 1986, during which the Austrian public elects Kurt Waldheim president despite or perhaps because of his Nazi past, the two characters see-saw back and forth as first one and then the other dominates the relationship, and the younger man comes to terms with his own performer's block, Judaism, Dachau, and heterosexuality. The last of these is the only one that is hard to believe, as the actor, Justin Kirk, seems quite unequivocally gay. Though he does a wonderful job at mimicking pianists like Alfred Brendel (in Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata), Vladimir Horowitz (in Liszt) and Glenn Gould (in the Bach "Goldberg" Variations) - in fact both actors acquit themselves rather well at the piano - Kirk, who did not create the role in the original Jewish Repertory Theatre production of the play as Robinson did, and whose vocal background is rock rather than classical, would seem to have been slightly miscast.
This should not, however, prevent anyone interested in issues like the confrontation between American and Jewish identity on the one hand, and the confluence of high German culture and Austrian anti-Semitism on the other, from seeing this play. Even though not sung by live singers, this is the best music to be heard on Broadway, and the insights found in the discussion of it are worthy of many a master class. The great accompanist Erik Werba insisted that one cannot learn accompanying except while working with a singer, and the play takes that a step further, insisting that a pianist who would accompany needs to study singing with a voice teacher.
There is much dramatic truth to ponder here, with a prediction that the future belongs to those who have become great by having suffered oppression, such as the Koreans under the Japanese. At the end of the play, the teacher has a few new students - Koreans. Was it a mere typo or a whimsically intentional slip in the program which listed the Dichterliebe performer on tape used in interludes between scenes not as the Dutch bass Jose van Dam but as "Jose van Dang"!?
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