Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Memphis" at the Kennedy Center: social progress in rock

Tonight, I attended a performance of the Broadway musical “Memphis” at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington DC.  It runs through July 1.

The music was composed by David Bryan; the book and lyrics are by Joe Di Petro, and the “concept” comes from George W. George (pun?).

The story is a loose "fictional" biography of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, and his introduction of black music in the 1950s, against a lot of segregationist opposition.  In the adaptation, the disc jockey is named Huey Calhoun (William Parry).

The music, for my ear, is not as “tuneful” or catchy as that of the obvious comparison, “Jersey Boys” (Jan. 5).  The most familiar number is the finale “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll”.  There’s a song near the end of the first act, “She’s My Sister”, that says a lot about blood family loyalty in this era.  There’s another risqué title, early: “Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night”. 

The musical, particularly toward the end of Act I (of 2), tends to have more spoken dialogue than other musicals of this type.

The first act deal with the old record business and radio.  The stagecraft, in fact, opens with an image of an old radio dial.  Toward the end of the act, it celebrates by flashing newspaper headlines (in video) about the popularity of “Negro” music.  There’s a scene where a 45 rpm record is dropped – but in reality 45’s were plastic vinyl and did not break (I had some myself in the 50s). The second act deals with the introduction of television, with a black-and-white image of the stage action, as it would have looked on 50s TV, shown above as live video.

The Millennium stage (at 6 PM) offered a free performance of “China Red: Light Dancers of the Paper Cut”, by Quetzal.

As for the old vinyl record business -- does anyone remember Record Sales, The Discount Record Shop, and the Disc Shop (and Swiller's and Giant Music in northern VA), all icons of the Washington DC record business in the early 60s?

Update:  July 6, 2015

"Memphis" is playing at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, in the Gayborhood. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Britten's "Noye's Fludde", used in "Moonrise Kingdom", is worth a hearing on its own

Since some music from Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” (“Noah’s Flood”, Op. 59) figures into the climactic hurricane scene in the recent indie film “Moonrise Kingdom”, I looked for an audio CD of the work, and there weren’t a lot of them.  It’s usually paired with Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” or the vaudeville “The Golden Vanity” (Op. 78).

I found a 1961 recording of Noye in the London ADRM series (CD 425161), with Norman Del Mar conducting the English Chamber Orchestra with Owen Brannigan as Noah, Shelia Rex as his wife, David Pinto as Sam and Dariel Angadi as Ham.  The work is performed with An East Suffolk Children’s Orchestra  representing the Chorus of Animals.

The work features a lot of spirited union singing, which rises to climax after the storm (used in the film) and then at the very end with the “spacious firmament”.  The short opera (48 min) is based on one of the 24 Miracle and Mystery Plays performed at Chester.  The last section is quite climactic, but dies to a quiet ending in G Major.  The music also has a three-note theme that anticipates the Passacaglia in “Peter Grimes”.
An interesting preoccupation of the plot is the refusal of Noah’s wife to go, and her forceful rescue into the ship just before the storm starts.

The meaning of the story in a modern context is disturbing.  Everyone of us is vulnerable to disasters beyond our control, that can destroy everything we “have”, and force us to accept interdependence on one another (or on God, of course). Trevor Anthony bellows the Voice of God.

The Golden Vanity” (17 minutes) is a vaudeville for boys and piano, with the composer performing (in 1966), and the Wandsworth Boys Choir conducted by Russell Burgess.  There is a bosun and a cabin boy (Barnaby Jago) who drowns in the piece, recalling some ideas of “Billy Budd”.   The original ballad, by Colin Graham, has a curious concept of self-sacrifice and perhaps “unit cohesion”.  The music is in the form of a theme and variations (in four sections) and the ending is surprisingly loud and upbeat given what has happened.   

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Some more music of Britten, sometimes an English "Mahler"

I gave myself another concert this afternoon (OK, a “self-date” on home turf), all Benjamin Britten.
The Piano Concerto in D, Op. 13, was originally composed in 1938, but had a slow movement replacement in 1945.  The music sounds as Viennese as English, and the last movement is a crunching march that could almost fit into a middle Mahler symphony (the Seventh).  The other movements are a Toccata, Waltz (not really very sociable) and a set of variations (in C) called “Impromptu”.  The finale, with its crunch, has been called a warning of the horrors to come.  The last four fortissimo octaves, however, remind one of Rachmaninoff’s signature endings.

The 1987 Hyperion recording is with Annette Servadei, piano, and the London Philharmonic conducted by Joseph Giunta.  It’s paired with the Khachaturian concerto.

The other CD is an Erato, with the Halle Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano, dated 1999.  The first work is “Young Apollo” (1939), for piano (Nikolai Lugansky), string quartet, and string orchestra. The title suggests homage to a “perfect” boyfriend.  But the 7 minute work sounds a bit repetitious and rhetorical.

The main work on the CD is the Double Concerto in B Minor for violin (Gidon Kremer), viola (Yuri Bashmet), and orchestra, 21 minutes, 1932.  Although the opening theme with ascending fourths sounds martial enough, the tone of the work is much pastoral than most of Britten’s other concerti (although the Violin Concerto comes to mind), and the ending is quiet.  This work is relatively little known.

Next comes Two Portraits (1930): the first is an homage to friend David Layton, for string orchestra, and the second is an homage  to self, with viola and strings.  In these pieces, English pastoralism prevails.
The last work on the CD is the rowdy Sinfonietta, Op. 1, the version for chamber orchestra (1932).  The first movement is said to be inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony.  We’re back in Vienna with this music.

Here’s a 2012 mini-doc by the New York Philharmonic on the post-Mahler War Requiem. I have a Telarc with the Atlanta Symphony for this work, which I heard in Dallas in 1980.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"Alexander's House", one-act musical by Shaieb from Washington DC Gay Men's Chorus

Sunday, I also picked up the CD of the one-act (53 min) musical “Alexander’s House”,  music and lyrics by Michael Shaieb, book by Shaieb and Brent Lord.

The work comprised part of the 2011 Pride concert by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC.  It relates the story of the son and partner of a gay man who passes away and leaves a beach house for the other two men to convert or sell.  After someone’s passing, it’s always a challenge to work back in time, into the person’s life, when he was vital and carrying out his own purpose.

The music, eleven songs, is rather lilting and centers around the tonality of G. The end of the last number is quiet.

The Washington Blade had a brief comment by Joey DiGiuglielmo June 9, here

Curiously, I could not find the CD on Amazon. 

The Metro Weekly had brief coverage here.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Paul Leavitt's Requiem follows the gentle examples of Faure, Rutter

There is now another post-romantic Requiem setting.  The newest is a 47 minute work by Paul Leavitt. The CD (which was being sold this weekend at the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC Pride performance), conducted by Thea Kano, performed by the Festival Choir and Orchestra of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation.

A WETA broadcast of a performance at the Church, on E Capitol St, NE, in Washington DC on April 16 or 17, 2011, has this link. The chorus included the New York City Master Chorale and the Rock Creek Singers of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC.

The Requiem comprises nine movements, but does not include a “Dies Irae” movement.  The music is gentle, somewhat in the manner of the Faure and Rutter requiems.  (That is, it goes in the opposite direction from Benjamin Britten's post-Mahler War Requiem, which I did hear performed by the Dallas Symphony and Chorus in the early 1980s.)  Movement 6 is the “Agnus Dei”, often the last movement of many concert requiems.  But a “Lux Aeterna”, “Libera Me” and “In Paradisum” will follow.  The music gets agitated and fugal in “Libera Me”, and the movement quotes the “Dies Irae” motif toward the end.  The music also gets impassioned in the “Paradise” movement, before settling to a quiet ending in B Major.  (The opening movement started in D Minor, as I checked on my Casio.)

The CD included Mr. Leavitt’s a cappella settings of Psalms 23 and 121, and “O Magnum Misterium”, as well as “A Christmas Madrigal” with Leavitt at the piano, and “In Luther’s Words”, adding flutist Christopher J. Redden.

As for the Faure Requiem, it has been performed a few times since the 1950s at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, and once in a church in Chambersburg, PA, a field trip in the spring of 1991 for which I still have a “long memory.”

Here is a YouTube from the New York City Master Chorale of the last movement of the Requiem from Feb. 2012:

Sunday, June 03, 2012

"Heart Throbs": Gay Mens Chorus of Washington DC introduces Pride Week

I made it, just barely, in time to see the Pride concert of The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC, called “Heart Throbs”, at Lisner Auditorium, Sunday afternoon June 3. The subtitle of the concert was “It’s a guy thing”.  Indeed it is.  The basic link is this

The two acts of the concert moved quickly, despite the multiplicity of numbers (pun).  Act One had a lot of material from the early 80s, as well as some boy band stuff (especially ‘Nsync), with echoes of a more youthful Justin Timberlake.

Act Two began with a retrospect (projected on a screen) of the James Bond 007 films. While the Chorus sings “Goldfinger”, we’re treated to a scene out of “From Russia with Love” where we really get to know Sean Connery’s hairy chest (as he was in 1962).  Then we see a parade of other actors who played James Bond, especially Roger Moore – and many of them were smooth, like today’s Daniel Craig.  Pierce Brosnan provided a welcome return to hypermasculinity.  Maybe somebody applied “NoNo” to the fictitious character.
I can remember a church sermon in Kansas around 1966 about how James Bond answered the question, “What does it mean to be a man?”   Over time, I have to add that Justin Timberlake’s physical appearance has been erratic, as he gets razed and tattooed (remember how he looked in “Southland Tales”?)

At the end of the concert, the Chorus gave us a reprise of the Village People, from the good old Jimmy Carter days of the late 1970s:  “YMCA”, “In the Navy” (with its obvious message, well before the subject of gays in the military would get politicized), and “Macho Man”, the last of which is rather explicit when performed fully – and painful sometimes for involuntary shamans to contemplate.

Here’s a Youtube of a rehearsal for the performance the GMCWDC’s rendition of “The Rocky Horror Show”, where the penalty is having to go into drag.