Summary for the Busy Executive: Things look swell. Things look great.
Ever since Victor Herbert at least, people have dreamed of marriages between classical and American vernacular music to give birth to something new, rich, and strange. Gershwin, Ellington, Weill, Rodgers, and Bernstein - to name only five - have each attracted such hopes in their turn, creating both popular song "standards" and something close to Mozartean Singspiel. In fact, however, many classical musicians have turned a nice dollar on Broadway, even if many have chosen to hide their classical roots.
Cy Coleman (Wildcat, Little Me, Sweet Charity, On the Twentieth Century, The Will Rogers Follies) began as a piano prodigy. In the Forties, a publisher asked him for some piano music that sounded like Gershwin. Coleman obliged with New York Sketches, a suite of three character pieces: "Morning," "Afternoon," and "Evening." It's more Gershwinesque than Gershwin - less focused than the real thing. Come to think of it, a lot of composers, particularly in the Hollywood of the time, wrote this kind of stuff. Think of Franz Waxman's score to The Philadelphia Story. On its own, Coleman's little suite has its attractions. The piano writing is assured and varied. He makes use of the entire keyboard. However, despite the enjoyments of the moment, you really do forget it five minutes later. Seth Rudetsky, the pianist in this performance, does Coleman no favors with an arthritic, unimaginative reading. This music should seduce like Debussy.
John Kander (Flora the Red Menace, Cabaret, Zorba, and the Broadway show and current hit movie Chicago), at one time apparently Liza Minnelli's house composer, attended Oberlin. The CD offers a set of art songs to texts by Kander's Kansas City compatriot, Lucile Adler. Adler's poems chronicle the death of her husband. If you know only Kander's pop ditties (and, to my regret, I do), these three will surprise you. The idiom for the first two songs derives from such folks as Britten, Rorem, and Holst (the Twelve Songs), while the last comes straight from another Kansas City eminence - Virgil Thomson. Although the songs lack an obvious individuality, one must admit that it takes a great deal of talent to pull imitations like this off, and the songs are beautiful in their own right. The vocal writing is effective, the piano writing expert. Carol Vaness lacks the flexibility of a real Lieder singer, but within an essentially operatic mode sings with great expressiveness. Both she and Kander deliver the goods in the climactic third song (which the composer describes as "very Midwestern").
Yes, dear reader, I too have seen The Fantasticks, and more than once. My favorite part was always the opening for two pianos, drum kit, and (I dimly recall) bass. Harvey Schmidt also wrote music for 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do! (my favorite of his shows), and Celebration. The piano suite Monteargentario shares the same bright insouciance of the Fantasticks opening. In spots, it reminded me of some of Poulenc's more Satiean piano music, not in anything like conscious or direct appropriation, but in its high spirits and its genuine eagerness to charm. Schmidt himself plays these little gems with affection and gusto.
If I hadn't been told that Charles Strouse trained as a classical composer, I yet might have guessed. I saw the original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie with Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera, and the opening number, "The Telephone Hour," bowled me over with its witty play on the clichéd riffs of white Fifties rock 'n' roll. It wasn't a song, but an honest-to-Betsy composition, going well beyond the structural limits of the usual Broadway song. Strouse has had his hits and misses since: Golden Boy, Applause, Annie. My favorite of his shows, Superman, closed all too quickly, and I know it only from the cast album. At any rate, Strouse numbers among his teachers Boulanger, Copland, and Arthur Berger, and, boy, it shows. Strouse's offerings are undoubtedly the most accomplished, the least awkward, and the most individual pieces on the program. They need no special pleading. An adventurous string quartet or duo-piano team would do well to look them up. Behind these pieces are New York jazz of the late Forties and early Fifties. Both Coleman and Strouse played jazz in New York clubs before making their mark in musicals. Strouse was a lot less casual than Coleman about his appropriation of jazz. He gave conscious thought to assembling his musical materia and to the translation into idiomatic writing for string quartet, a genre with few convincing jazz examples. The first movement moves in a jittery swing - somewhere between hard bop and Bernstein's jazz evocations in On the Town. The slow second movement is a mood piece closer to Alban Berg than to American neoclassicism. But even here, you can catch a kind of searching, twisting line, reminiscent of the slow solos of saxophone players taking choruses of "Sophisticated Lady." The skittish finale seems to me the least overtly jazz-influenced and the most Coplandian, although (as with Copland) the rhythms probably wouldn't have occurred to someone who hadn't heard jazz. The Korngold Quartet turns in a fine account.
The Sonata for 2 Pianos is, quite simply, a knockout, very much in the manner of examples by Stravinsky and Poulenc, although without the Stravinskian architectural weight. In compensation, the work offers a gorgeous, though not necessarily delicate lyricism. Handsome sonorities, true contrapuntal independence of the two players - both proclaim Strouse's considerable composing chops. As far as I know (the liner notes don't make it clear), this is Strouse's last concert work. I know he needs to earn a living, but maybe when he retires, he can return to this kind of music. He's a great talent. The first movement seems the most complex, the slow second beautifully singing, although each player sings his own tune. The mercurial scherzo reminds me of Foss's neoclassic brilliance, especially his piano writing in something like the cantata Behold! I Build an House. Strouse by the time he had gotten around to writing this movement had already begun to work in popular theater, and the scherzo and finale reflect "a looser mindset." Certainly, the canonic writing of the first movement, the contrapuntally distinct lines of the second, and the thematic concision of both appear less evident in the last two movements. Nevertheless, the finale builds considerable momentum on its way to a substantial close. Pianists Emily Witt and Scot Woolley give the music its due, never over-inflating, giving way to one another in the complicated little dance of steps forward and back dictated by Strouse's music. Sensitive, musicianly playing.
I don't know the sources for obtaining this CD. I got mine from Berkshire Record Outlet: www.berkshirerecordoutlet.com.
Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz