Music News: Oct. 9, 2012
Of all the semi-forgotten glories of American music theater, the Gershwins' Of Thee I Sing is among the best. How could the great title song; "Love Is Sweeping the Country," "Wintergreen For President," and — above all — "Who Cares?" ever leave the stage?
(The subject here, as if this needed to be said, is not Barack Obama's book of the same title. Or maybe, you didn't know about the book either!)
We are relatively lucky in San Francisco: In 2005, the S.F. Symphony performed an abbreviated version (adding, needlessly, a similarly shortened version of Let 'Em Eat Cake, an unoriginal sequel), and now, just in time for the climax/dénouement of the 2012 election, 42nd Street Moon has come up with a vivacious, charming, heartfelt production.
Not only does President Wintergreen's election campaign coincide with the approach of our own Presidental election on Nov. 6, the production also marks the opening of 42nd Street Moon's 20th season. Greg MacKellan’s and Stephanie Rhoads' Little Company That Could has revived more than a hundred "Forgotten Broadway" gems; George and Ira Gershwin's 1932 work, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is just the latest.
One of the company's great accomplishments is to go up against the contemporary Broadway craze of amplifying the hell out of everything, no matter how small the venue. There is no amplification, no belting in the 200-seat Eureka Theatre — just singing, by talented actor-singers, who perform musicals from and with heart, and quite without the artifice of failed opera singers.
When Noel Anthony (Wintergreen) and Ashley Jarrett (Mary Turner) sing "Who Cares?," the sound is gentle, embracing, intimate. Against the full orchestra in Davies Symphony Hall seven years ago, this performance features a heroic duo: Music Director Michael Anthony Schuler on a piano that at times sounds like an orchestra, and Nick di Scala with a variety of woodwinds.
"Who Cares?" has an ecstatic melody and an unusual structure: very short, with an introduction longer than the song itself, and — according to a composer friend — "not the standard AABA with a bridge, but ABA'C." But who cares? It's just grand, deserving of George Balanchine creating a gorgeous, eponymous ballet around it.
MacKellan's stage direction is — as always — simple and to the point; never would he be allowed in German opera houses because he focuses on the work, instead of trying to prove how clever he is. Schuler's musical direction is equally straightforward, with excellent balances.
Jayne Zaban's choreography, on a small stage and without professional dancers, is entertaining. The cast — only four of whom are members of Actors' Equity — is terrific. Unlike productions in other small companies, the ensemble/chorus/small roles have no weak links.
The Gershwins' prophetic story about the impeachment of a president was written 66 years before Clinton coming to grief over Monica. Even as a parody — and it is a hilarious musical — because it is coming from a more innocent age, there is no, ahem, liaison, only a hairbrained campaign idea of a political beauty contest. The winner is to become the bride of the bachelor candidate.
Wintergreen falls in love with Mary Turner and her corn bread, and marries her, but the winner — a Miss Devereaux (Brittany Danielle, vamping nonstop) — who is alleged to be somewhat related to Napoleon, enlists the French ambassador (Stewart Kramar) to create a national/international incident. Between that nutty premise and the thoroughly satisfying resolution, there are many surprising nuggets, such as the Supreme Court deciding the winner of the election. (That could never happen, could it?)
Chris Stevens, the late U.S. ambassador to Libya, may be the subject of continuing headlines and political feud elsewhere, but in the Bay Area, it's up close and personal.
Educated in East Bay schools (Piedmont High, UC-Berkeley, Hastings Law School), Stevens also had family ties here — cellist Mary Commanday was his mother, SFCV founder Robert Commanday his stepfather.
Stevens' stepbrother is David Commanday, who will be the guest conductor at California Symphony's Oct. 18 concert. He has made program changes and named the concert "Salute to a Hero" in Stevens' honor: "Chris represented the United States throughout his career in the most difficult political and ideological settings, and always found ways to make friends to foster understanding and progress. He 'waged peace' with great success, and great courage, and ultimately gave his life, serving the American ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights."
David Commanday, founding artistic director for Central Illinois’ Heartland Festival Orchestra, is one of seven conductors auditioning during the 2012-2013 season to be the new music director for the Walnut Creek-based orchestra, which was led for 24 years until 2010 by its founder, Barry Jekowsky.
John Williams' Summon the Heroes, written for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, opens the concert. From the originally planned program, Wagner’s "Wotan’s Farewell and Fire Music" from Die Walküre, Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite remains; Williams’ Suite from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is added.
According to an announcement from the family, a memorial service for Stevens will be held in the rotunda of the San Francisco City Hall on Oct. 16 at 4:30 p.m. The public is invited.
When Moisés Kaufman's 33 Variations had its Broadway premiere in 2009, press advances, features, and reviews uniformly concentrated on just one thing: the return of Jane Fonda to the stage after 46 years of absence.
Mountain View's TheatreWorks, which started the play's West Coast run last weekend, cast Rosina Reynolds in the lead role, and she is giving a splendid, believable performance, without sucking the air out of the play.
Reynolds plays the musicologist Katherine Brandt, obsessed with Beethoven's own years-long fixation on Anton Diabelli's short, simple waltz, which the Viennese music publisher submitted in 1819 to 50 composers, soliciting variations. Schubert, Czerny, Hummel, and the Archduke Rudolph all took the hook, spending a day or two on the challenge. As for Beethoven — ill and mesmerized by the challenge — he set aside the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, the Missa Solemnis, and who knows what else.
According to the usually unreliable Anton Schindler, Beethoven at first regarded the banal little tune as "Schusterfleck" (probably something on the sole of a shoe), but then spent some of his remaining years before his death in 1827 to create the wondrous, unique Variations. (The world has disregarded Beethoven's change of "Variationen" to "Veränderungen" which also means transformations; he also switched from "a well-known German dance" to "a Walz by Diabelli," making the publisher immortal.)
The TheatreWorks production, directed by the iconic Robert Kelley, is excellent, the play itself is pretty good (its illustrated-lecture, Beethoven-for-Dummies nature rankles at times), but its "soundtrack" makes it an experience. Just as Brian Friel’s Performance is made to glow by the inclusion of live performances on stage of Janáček's two string quartets, as the Requiem assuages the excesses of Amadeus, in Mountain View, too, music prevails.
At the piano throughout the play, William Liberatore's illustration of the text with fragments or whole sections of the Diabelli Variations makes it all worthwhile. Fans of the music and, especially, newbies will learn and have a memorable experience.
As if the subject, the troubled birth of the music, wasn't complex enough, Kaufman tries to weave many threads together. The musicologist travels to Bonn to study the manuscripts, even as she is struggling with the onset of ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. She and the deaf, tortured Beethoven (Howard Swain) interact on their related quests.
Schindler (Jackson Davis) serves as an intermediary between Beethoven and increasingly impatient Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan); Brandt's daughter (Jennifer LeBlanc), back in the U.S., is trying to communicate with and protect her distant mother; a young nurse (Chad Deverman) is both helping the daughter and courting her; and, in Bonn, the Beethoven archivist (Marie Shell) provides both information (are those spots on the manuscript from wine or food?) and support for Brandt. Except for Swain's failure to breathe life into Kaufman's caricature of the composer, the cast provides exceptional performances.
It's both too much and not enough. The simultaneous presence of characters from three centuries apart is not made more palatable by Andrea Bechert's confusing scenic design ... or Kaufman's lack of ability to present theatrical time travel the way Tom Stoppard seamlessly managed to do in Arcadia.
And yet most importantly, there are the Variations or, rather, Transformations. See the play and then put the Brendel or Richter recording on the turntable, crank up the phonograph, and hear what it's really all about.
Fashionable composer Thomas Adès, whose Powder Her Face and other works are considered by some to be in the mushroom category themselves, calls Wagner a "fungus":
I don't find Wagner's an organic, necessary art. Wagner's music is fungal. I think Wagner is a fungus. It's a sort of unnatural growth. It's parasitic in a sense — on its models, on its material. His material doesn't grow symphonically — it doesn't grow through a musical logic — it grows parasitically. It has a laboratory atmosphere.
In an interview with the Guardian, Adès goes on to talk about an apparently more important composer:
The music we listen to is the residue of an endless search for stability. I think you can make a sort of illusion of stability in a piece; you can fix it in a certain way. In a musical work, you permanently fix something that in life would be appreciable only for a moment. If I put a note under the microscope I feel I can see millions, trillions of things. In Polaris, my recent orchestral piece, a "voyage for orchestra," I was looking and looking at a particular C sharp, and as I put it under the microscope I saw or heard a writhing that turned into the piece.
A string quartet with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanirl sounds improbable, but there it is, the four struggling with music and life in Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet.
In the film — screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 14, and opening commercially on Nov. 9 — Walken, who plays Peter, has health problems; Hoffman's Robert is overambitious; Keener's Juliette and Mark Ivanir's Daniel confront a variety of issues; and on top of it all, they are preparing for a recital of Beethoven’s Op. 131 String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor.
After 25 years of collaboration, the Fugue Quartet (the quartet's name), the cellist (Walken) tells his younger colleagues that he is in an early stage of Parkinson's, and will retire immediately. Ah, but there is the Op. 131 to perform first ...
A report from Toronto says there are a half dozen music coaches listed in the end credits, so the bowing must look fairly authentic. The music sounds great: It is by the Brentano String Quartet. There is also music by Haydn, Bach, and Strauss; the four stars have been getting star treatment in reviews.
A report by John Katsilometes in The Las Vegas Sun tells a complex story about the quitting and/or ouster of David Itkin as music director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. Itkin says when he did not renew his contract, he was not allowed to finish his contract, ending with the 2013 season.
Itkin said he was not granted the same measure of artistic control over the philharmonic that conductors at other symphonies are afforded, explained that his decision to remain in Dallas rather than move to Las Vegas was endorsed and authorized by the L.V. Phil Board of Directors, and calmly said that his earlier-than-expected ouster was executed even as he expressed his wishes to orchestra officials to complete the final year of his contract.
"The idea that when a music director chooses not to renew (his) contract and says that the reaction is, 'Don’t ever come back for your last season,' is unprecedented in our business,” said Itkin, who still is the conductor of the Abilene (Texas) Philharmonic Orchestra and also is professor of music and director of orchestral studies at the University of North Texas College of Music. "Unprecedented and personally insulting. There was no reason from an administrative or artistic or any other reason for that to have been the outcome. That was never my intended outcome."
Given opportunity to address Itkin’s comments specifically, L.V. Philharmonic President and CEO Jeri Crawford essentially washed her hands of the issue, saying the philharmonic and she are focused on the future as the orchestra settles into its new home at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. The L.V. Phil has sold out its first two performances at the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall.
A series of guest conductors will lead the orchestra in the 2012-2013 season, beginning with a Masterworks Series performance directed by Andrew Gans. Guest conductors will be considered replacements for Itkin and be in place for the 2013-2014 season. There have been already 300 applications for the position.
- Wed May 29, 2013 8:00pm
- Sat June 1, 2013 8:00pm
- Wed June 5, 2013 (All day)
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