Color Purple

John Lahr reviewed the Broadway production of The Color Purple in the December 12th issue of The New Yorker (Artificial Respiration). Because I have been working on the Luther Henderson biography (the man behind the music of Broadway shows such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Jelly’s Last Jam, and Play On, to name a few), I took particular note of Lahr’s comment regarding the music:

Under Gary Griffin’s direction, the show moves at speed but picks up no momentum. It has pace but no rhythm. There is something inert at its core, which has to do with the lyrics and music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, who have written pop songs but, as is all too evident, never assayed a Broadway show. Their songs illustrate, but don’t advance, the plot.

Lahr was not alone. Here’s an excerpt from Michael Feingold’s review (Prosaically ‘Purple’) in The Village Voice:

…the three songwriters, skilled professionals from the Hollywood pop scene, mostly display competence and craftsmanship rather than inspiration. One or two of the ensemble numbers built on traditional forms, refreshingly, break free of the standard pop conventions. But far too often you sit, watching dynamite performers give their all to a song, and wonder why the result doesn’t soar. Then the book takes over, and inexplicable events start rushing past again.

And Terry Teachout had this to say inThe Wall Street Journal (The Color Green):

I can’t say enough nasty things about the music, which consists of generic gospel, scrubbed-up blues and fake-fur jazz, all somewhat less memorable than the score to a made-for-TV movie. The lyrics are cloyingly faux-naïf, though I’ll be kind and cite only this stanza from the finale: “It take a grain of love/To make a mighty tree/Even the smallest voice/Can make a harmony.” Why does it not surprise me that one of the show’s songwriters is best known for having penned the theme to “Friends”?

Had Luther been alive and working on this show, I suspect the outcome would have been very different. In several interviews I have heard about Luther’s collaborative nature and how he approaches the music not as not an add-on or interlude, but as an integral part of a production. Here are snippets from two interviews, the first from Susan Birkenhead, lyricist for Jelly’s Last Jam:

…he took this complicated music and because he had worked in the theater for so much of his life, and he understood the dramatic needs of the music, and because he was a consummate musician who understood the complexities of that music, what he did, really, was not just arrange the music but almost recompose Morton’s music as a theatrical score…

Sheldon Epps, creator, writer and director of Play On, had this to say:

I was a huge admirer of his work on Jelly’s Last Jam and what I thought was an extremely difficult task, brilliantly executed in terms of Luther’s adapting that music to theater music and to theater songs. He was not given nearly enough credit for the brilliance with which he accomplished that task. I loved the show. I loved the way that Jelly’s music was used to tell that story, the way that music is adapted to the needs of choreography and staging and all of that, and in fact in addition to my overall admiration for his work, I think it was probably specifically the work that he did in adapting that music to the needs of the theater project that made him the one that I wanted to contact when I started to work on Play On….

Luther never approached it initially musically but always dramatically. When we were in the first rehearsal process, he never wanted anybody to sing a note of a song until I had been clear about what the scene was about, until the actors were clear about what was going on between the characters and what they were playing in the scene prior to where the song was going to be done, so that whatever adaptation of that song, whatever treatment of that music he created was the result of the dramatic needs rather than the musical needs. He then went on to arrange it in a way that was musically brilliant, that the inspiration for all of those arrangements was the story and the theatrical needs, not the musical needs.

I don’t know for a fact, but I imagine that the fault for the music in The Color Purple lies not with the songwriters, but more likely with the mandate they were given. Whether they have the expertise to have handled the job differently is not my point, rather I expect they were hired for their pop expertise, in hopes that the songs would become popular, sell lots of audio CDs, and thereby expand the revenue base for what is a very expensive production. The result of putting commercial concerns above artistic ones may yield financial success, but is unlikely to garner any critical acclaim.

Ban Loud Music

At left is a picture of the tee-shirt that I will NOT be buying. On the right, my edited version of said tee-shirt.

The Music Stand catalog comes in the mail several times a year, and I keep looking at the “Bach later. Offenbach sooner” doormat and Jazz Band Wall Hanging, but I have no appropriate place to put either item. Every once in a while I do order a little something, usually a funny tee-shirt for a gift, or nightshirt for myself.

Other catalogs I get a kick out of and occassionally shop in include Femail Creations and Wacky Planet.

It’s About The Music

In today’s The New York Times Bernard Holland reviews a concert by 90-year-old pianist Earl Wild (A Veteran Pianist Sticks With the Things He Knows Best). Holland informs us that Wild has a reputation for “big pieces played in the grand manner” and has exhibited “longstanding delight in astonishing audiences with feats of virtuosity and stamina,” so what interested me most was Holland’s last paragraph:

I think I hear in Mr. Wild’s later years a more sober and thoughtful, and thus a more interesting, musician than the one I remember from his slam-bang, shoot-’em-up prime. Both the simple Marcello piece and Beethoven’s deeply rhetorical Largo movement were touchingly done. Maybe this kind of musicianship was always there but, with all the razzle-dazzle in the way, never got to our ears. Maybe it never got to Mr. Wild’s ears either. I suspect that being a little less of a pianist these days has made him a better musician.

I think that youth versus the wisdom of age has something to do with it, but I fear that the shift in our societal values plays an even bigger role. For whatever the reason (perhaps lack of arts education?), audiences react favorably to the flash and splash of virtuosic technique that they evaluate primarily on the basis of speed and volume. For some young artists the over-the-top displays are motivated by ego (“Look how great I am”), while others are propelled by the belief that if they can’t “wow the audience” then they have failed. In both cases, audience reactions fuel the fire.

I believe that the greatest performers are those who understand that it is about the music, not the musician. Somehow, with that understanding and attendant devotion to the music itself, they actually become better artists. The catch, of course, is that as human beings we crave recognition and applause — knowing within yourself that you did the right thing or created something wonderful is just not the same as hearing the accolades. Somewhere there must be a happy balance, and searching for that ‘somewhere,’ trying to find that balance, is part of the artist’s journey.

[Longtime readers of DevraDoWrite know that “technique in lieu of true artistry” is one of my recurring laments. During my first week as a blogess I posted It Takes More Than Chops.]

Victor Borge In And On The Air

Around the time that Terry Teachout was watching Victor Borge on an old What’s My Line? episode (read TT’s reminiscence here ), I was perusing Luther Henderson’s papers and came across…Victor Borge.

One Wednesday evening, February 19, 1958 at 9 PM to be exact, CBS-TV broadcast “Victor Borge’s Comedy and Music.” This one-hour show was “Presented by the Big Bold Pontiac and your authorized Pontiac Dealer.” I know this because among Luther’s papers was a program, and I am guessing that there was a live TV audience. (Why else would there be a program for a television show?)

The opening number was described as follows:

Liechtensteiner Polka . . . . . . . VICTOR BORGE and the Orchestra
Mr. Popp’s arrangement of Mr. Borge’s conception of SHAMPOO MUSIC for the 16-piece orchestra under the baton of LUTHER HENDERSON, JR., Conductor and Arranger for the Polly Bergen TV show, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Andre Kostelanetz, and other top names in American music.

Pontiac got their monies worth as the program included several “commercial” numbers including:

STILL ANOTHER COMMERCIAL . . . . . starring MILTON CROSS narrator, and VICTOR BORGE
Mr. Borge performs variations on the themes of Pontiac greatness: style, performance and handling…and reaches an impressive conclusion. Narrated by Milton Cross.

There are a number of old television programs I’d like to view as part of my research for “Seeking Harmony: The Life and Music of Luther Henderson.” Thanks to the Museum of Television & Radio , I should be able to see this show, the Polly Bergen show, and a number of other programs for which Luther composed, arranged, and/or conducted music. Bea Arthur tells me that Luther even made an on-camera appearance in an episode of Maude, and I’m really looking forward to seeing that!

Traffic and Music

A colleague from the other coast is in town for meetings that are taking place on the West Side of Los Angeles. Said colleague, being a connoisseur of good music, decided to take in a concert at Disney Hall, got a pair of tickets to a classical duo guitar performance by Sérgio and Odair Assad, and invited me to join him. We thought to have dinner first, but I warned that rush-hour traffic was likely to make that impossible as his meetings ran until 5 pm — at that hour, the 20-minute drive from the ocean to downtown L.A. was likely to take over an hour… at best. So the plan was to meet at the box office at 7:30. At 7:15 my cell phone rang – traffic was crawling along the #10 Freeway and my friend was barely half way across town. At 7:50, just as I was surmising that we would miss the first half of the show, my intrepid colleague appeared; just after his call, the traffic magically began to move, and so we were able to settle in to our excellent seats just as the lights dimmed.

Brazilian born Sérgio and Odair Assad are brothers, and part of a multigenerational musical family that includes their mandolin-playing father, vocalist mother, sister who also sings and plays guitar, and the brothers’ two daughters. But tonight it’s just the two men, alone on an unadorned stage playing unamplified classical guitars, breathing as one, exhibiting a sympatico between them that belies not only their brotherhood but also the fact that they’ve been playing together for 40 years. The program opened with a piece by Isaac Albéniz that sounded oddly pianistic to me. I was not familiar with this composer, so later, in perusing the program notes by John Henken, when I read that Albéniz was a pianist and that his piano pieces have been transcribed and arranged for guitar, I was pleased that my ears had not deceived me.

The second piece was by Rodrigo, a three-movement composition titled Tonadilla that contains fragments reminiscent of his more famous composition Concierto de Aranjuez. Without comparing the scores, or at least hearing it again, I cannot say whether those fragments were deliberate auditory allusions to Concierto or simply harmonic and rhythmic snippets peculiar to Rodrigo’s sound and style. The program also included pieces by Sérgio, his daughter, Piazzolla, Bittencourt, Gismonti, Dyens, and Brouwer.

The house was not sold out, but the applause was thunderous leading to repeated curtain-calls, and I am happy to say that there were quite a few young people in attendance. The duo reappeared from the wings without their guitars the first two times, but finally gave in and remerged for an encore. Sérgio informed the audience that they grew up poor and had only one guitar, so they would now show us how they played in the beginning. He put down his guitar, stood behind Adair who was seated, and together they played a very intricate and lively piece, four hands, simultaneous, on one guitar. It was amazing! A bravissimo evening to be sure.

I’ve Got Mail: Greener Grass

Pliable from On An Overgrown Path wrote to me last week, after I discovered his blog and commented here on a post about Michel Petrucianni.

Wow – you actually knew Michel. I worked with Bernstein, Previn, von Karajan and others in my days in classical music (see this link for a photo ) but I would have really valued hearing Michel Petrucciani live, yet alone meeting him.

To which I reply: Wow — Bernstein, Previn and von Karajan, I would love to have known them! Having had a privileged New York City childhood, I attended Bernstein’s Children’s Concerts and loved him from afar. My dad knows Previn, having recorded with him (A Different Kind of Blues and It’s a Breeze), but I have never met Previn nor von Karajan, let alone seen either perform in person. Wish that I had. The grass is always greener.

Pliable tells me

I was lucky enough to catch the Trio Hum – Daniel Humair/ Rene Urtreger and late lamented Pierre Michelot in Bergerac a few years back – do you know the piano playing of Rene Urtreger? a very under-rated pianist I think.

Daniel recorded with my dad [It’s Nice to Be With You: Jim Hall in Berlin with Jimmy Woode (bass) and Daniel Humair (drums) – recorded in Berlin, Germany, June 1969 for MPS], and Pierre (who I lamented here) played with my ex at a Paris nightclub a few decades ago, so I knew them both, but I was not familiar with Urtreger. A little quick googling yielded a clip or two and a newly purchased CD (Joue Bud Powell ) is on its way to me now. Pliable has good taste! If you haven’t visited On An Overgrown Path yet, please do — you will not be disappointed.

Writers’ Bible – A New Edition

‘Style’ Gets New Elements is the headline from an article in today’s The New York Times. Just a few years short of its fiftieth birthday, Strunk and White’s enduring rule book, Elements of Style, a thin little paperback packed with text, has become a book of visual art with accompanying music.

In the new clothbound edition, Ms. Kalman’s whimsical paintings are sprinkled through the text, often responding to the wry or quirky examples the authors chose to enliven what might otherwise have been a dry discussion of grammatical rules.

Maira Kalman also envisioned music, so she turned to a young Julliard graduate, Nico Muhly, who has written an “Elements of Style” song cycle which will premiere tonight at 8 PM in the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street).

The vocal writing is cast in a distinctly early-music style, the textures as pure and pared down as Strunk and White liked their sentences.

If I were in New York City tonight, that’s where I’d be.

Taps

So here I am in New York, and this morning had to decide how I was going to travel uptown. I was born and raised in this city, and have been riding subways since I was a child…but not today. As I was heading toward the subway station I began to think about recent events in London, and suddenly I was hailing a taxi cab. Tomorrow I’ll probably take the subway, ’cause I felt rather silly not doing so today, but in a way I was glad for the reminder because it is so easy to go about one’s business without thinking about the horrors taking place in other countries.

Thinking about all the people dying, and recalling the days and weeks following 9/11, made me think of Taps. It is perhaps the most famous of all bugle calls, and is comprised of just 24 notes. I don’t know for sure when I first heard that haunting melody. I keep thinking that it was probably at summer camp signaling ‘lights out’ – the original purpose of the call – or perhaps in an old war movie soundtrack, playing as darkness enveloped the barracks of the good guys. Fond memories aside, my first exposure was most likely while watching television coverage of John F. Kennedy’s funeral – I was barely eight years old. Over the last forty years, the American public has come to know Taps all too well. For many days following 9/11 we heard it several times a day, and now as soldiers and civilians in all corners of the world die at terrorist hands in political and religious wars, I only hope that we never become inured to the sadness that Taps evokes.

Taps, as we know it today, was first sounded in July of 1862 for the Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, under the command of Union General Daniel Butterfield. Its origins are much disputed, and the truth is confounded by verbal accounts that have grown into myth. Master Sgt. Jari A. Villanueva, a longstanding member of the United States Air Force Band and respected bugle historian, traces today’s Taps back to an earlier version of the call Tattoo used “to signal troops to prepare them for bedtime roll call.” In his comprehensive essay that covers the history and the mythology of Taps, Villanueva writes, “In the interest of historical accuracy, it should be noted that it is not General Butterfield who composed Taps, rather that he revised an earlier call into the present day bugle call we know as Taps.”

Other stories of Taps’ origin include a Union Army father finding the musical notes on a slip of paper in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier…his own son. Villanueva has traced this tall tale back to a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” story that was later spread by re-telling in an Ann Landers or Dear Abby column.

Villaneuva also explains the circumstances under which Taps was first used at a military funeral during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862. Captain Tidball, worried that a loud gun volley would alert the enemy nearby, ordered Taps to be played at the burial of a fallen soldier. “The custom, thus originated, was taken up throughout the Army of the Potomac, and finally confirmed by orders.” Taps can be heard as many as thirty times a day at Arlington National Cemetery. Villanueva, himself a bugler, says that this duty “is the military musician’s equivalent of ‘playing Carnegie Hall.’”

“Taps should be played by a lone bugler,” says Colonel Arnald D. Gabriel, Commander and Conductor of the United States Air Force Band from 1964 – 1985. “Some have tried to harmonize it, but it destroys the simplistic beauty of the lone bugler. The most heart tugging time to hear it is at Arlington Cemetery when a veteran is buried and there are no family members present, just the Chaplin, the honor guard and the pallbearers. To hear taps in that setting is gut-wrenching.”

Music is a powerful communicator.

Music On The Brain

I have long been curious about how and/or why music causes various visceral reactions. I wonder, for example, why is it that modulating keys gives one a lift. In search of some answers, I am reading Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain. (This is not a new book; first published in 1997, and the paperback reissued by Quill in 2002.) Jourdain’s explainations evolve from sounds… to tone…to melody…to harmony…to rhythm…to composition…to performance…to listening…to understanding…to ecstasy, and his ten chapters are so named. I haven’t reached ecstasy yet — I’m only as far as rhythm — but here are a few interesting tidbits (the italics are mine):

“Laboratory studies show that untrained adults discern contour almost as well as profesional musicians. So contour is central to our experience of melody.” Harmony, or “melody in flight” is a required dimension to hearing melody, as is rhythm. “Some musicologists have described harmony as music’s third dimension, its depth dimension (with breadth of time and the height of pitch space as the first two dimensions).”

Harmony needs dissonance just like a good story needs suspense…Only after lengthy expeditions in other harmonic realms, realms that orbit lesser tonal centers, is the listener granted release from his agony. Inferior composers make quick, perfunctory returns to tonal centers, or travel so far from them that the listener hardly recognizes them when finally brought home. The trick is to find just the right balance between reinforcing tonal centers and violating them.”

“With experience, our brains acquire a vocabulary of these common progressions…Halfway through hearing them, we anticipate their endings. They are musical cliches. But a talented composer can take advantage of this fact by encouraging the listener to anticipate a standard ending yet writing something different. When the chord anticipated and the chord actually heard are aptly chosen, the contrast can be blissully excruciating.”

I’ll Be Around

One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the chance encounter with old friends; it’s like strolling to the store for a quart of soy milk and bumping into someone you haven’t seen in ages. Of course, out here in Altadena, we don’t stroll to the store, but you get the idea. Anyway, this morning I was delighted to run into Alec Wilder, courtesy of Terry Teachout and The Washington Post .

I used to go night after night to hear Marian McPartland play at The Cookery, and in later years at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel. She and Alec were close friends and he was in attendance more often than not. Alec was usually alone, and after Marian introduced us, and he was satisfied that I was really there to listen and appreciate the music, he would invite me to sit with him.
Alec & Marian, 1976
He had a gruff exterior that completely evaporated when he smiled. I thought him to be rather professorial, with his tweed jacket and pipe, always a book or two on hand, and forever scribbling notes to himself. Back then, my knowledge of Alec’s musical work was limited to familiarity with a handful of songs that he wrote and which Marian often played — I’ll Be Around, While We’re Young and It’s So Peaceful in the Country being a few of the most well-known.

I wish I could have known him better, and longer. Thinking about those times led me to my bookshelf for a visit with Marian via All In Good Time her book of autobiographical essays about some of the people she’s known — Alec Wilder: The Complete Composer is the title of the last chapter. Marian describes the first song that Alec wrote for her:

He airily tossed me a sheet of music, on which was written, “Jazz Waltz for a Friend — a small present from Alec Wilder.”

I was delighted, and I couldn’t wait to play the piece. It had a haunting melody, which had a way of turning back on itself that I found fascinating. It was deceptively simple to play, yet hard to memorize and improvise on. Many of Alec’s pieces are that way, but they are rewarding, for as you delve into them and explore their intricacies, you find fresh ways to go. Jazz Waltz for a Friend became a part of our trio repertoire, just as Alec became part of my audience from them and on.

One of my favorite CDs by Marian is her solo concert Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, and the last track is, you guessed it, Alec Wilder’s I’ll Be Around.