Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In Praise of Concerts, However Imperfect

Far be it from me to put classical concertgoing above theatergoing, or vice versa. Both afford pleasure and have their important place in civilized life. But I must concede that concerts, even imperfect, tend to be more dependable than today’s theater, at least as experienced by a critic. Why is that?

Classical music has one distinct advantage: it cannot undergo the drastic changes inflicted by megalomaniacal directors, or idiocies served up by deluded producers. Even if, say, a Shakespearean text is adhered to, it is nowadays exposed to unwarranted changes of locale and period, fantastic set design, outlandish costuming, frantic mumbling or illicit pauses, quixotic casting and whatever other iniquities a text can be heir to. And let us not forget cases of egregious lack of talent.

Now take a piece of classical music. True, a conductor or soloist can, and perhaps should, introduce idiosyncratic differences. Yet the notes themselves might as well be written in cement as on paper, and no one wholly incompetent, unprepared or demented would dare to face a keyboard or raise a baton. A performance may be lackluster or hyperkinetic, but the sonata or symphony will still be recognizable. I have caught productions of classic plays, however, that left me wondering what I was seeing.

Thus the three concerts I recently attended were recognizably Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Knickerbocker Holiday, the same team’s Lost in the Stars, and Alberic Magnard’s magnificent opera Berenice. I propose to write about them not as a music critic, for which I haven’t the competence, but as a music lover, for which my book John Simon on Music should adequately testify.

For two evenings in late January at Tully Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra joined by the Collegiate Chorale, both under James Bagwell, put on a semi—no, quarter—staged concert version. The original Broadway production of 1938, directed by Joshua Logan, had a semi-successful run of 168 performances, mostly on the strength of Walter Huston as Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

The story is introduced by Washington Irving, on one of whose writings the show is based. We are in New Amsterdam in 1647, as Stuyvesant, the new governor, is about to arrive. The maladroit and unprincipled town council, to throw dust in his eyes, wants to stage a public hanging. The obvious candidate is young Brom Broeck, the town’s liberal and sweetheart of Tina Tienhoven, daughter of one of the disapproving councilors. Pieter cancels the hanging, but Brom will be jailed so that the elderly governor (a satire on FDR) can himself marry the protesting young woman, as her father commands.

But Washington Irving steps in with a warning about how history will judge Stuyvesant. Broeck is allowed to wed Tina, and the governor is induced to become more democratic. The whole show was a Republican satire on Roosevelt and the New Deal, most of which, however timely today, was lacking from the concert version written by Ted Sperling and Edward Barnes, and directed by the former.

Nevertheless, the orchestra and chorus performed compellingly, and only the characters of the defanged satire, mostly turned into farce figures, fared poorly.The heavy Dutch accent of the councilors clashed with the all-American English of Stuyvesant, though that was the least of Victor Garber’s unvirile personation. No more sturdy was the fussily gesticulating Irving of Bryce Pinkham. As the lovers, Ben Davis and Kelli O’Hara did all right by the indestructible “It Never Was You,” but, afterwards, neither O’Hara, an overdecorated veteran ingĂ©nue, nor Davis, a blandly colorless Brom, managed to prove much beyond that two sticks rubbed together require more than a couple of hours to strike a spark.  The supporting cast, largely because of the direction, was more hammy than incandescent.

Even so, it was good to hear a more or less complete Knickerbocker Holiday, of which, there is only a CD of a truncated 1938 radio broadcast starring Walter Huston in his signature role. Recording this 2011 version will be no help, considering how bloodlessly Garber rendered, with his fussy but desiccated approach, such a superb number as “September Song,” which only the Times reviewer managed to compare to Huston’s, and only his mother could love.

Encores! the laudable ongoing series of musical comedy revivals at City Center, offered a semi-staged version of the Weill-Anderson Lost in the Stars. Based on a novel by South Africa’s Alan Paton, this tells the story of Reverend Stephen Kumalo, from the South African hinterland, traveling to Johannesburg to retrieve his long unheard-from prodigal son Absalom (note the biblical allusion). The youth has impregnated his girlfriend Irina, and, desperate to provide for her and the coming baby, joins some unsavory companions in a robbery that goes awry as the panicked Absalom inadvertently shoots the son of James Jarvis, the powerful white supremacist landowner. Unlike the lying robbers, who get off scot free, Absalom, partly under his preacher father’s influence and aware of the consequences, tells the truth and is condemned to death by hanging. The two fathers, each with a lost son, manage to become friends.

This 1949 show, Weill’s last, had only a passable 273-performance run, despite a remarkable score blending European, American, and African musical elements, and comprising some marvelous songs. There is “Thousands of Miles,” sung by Stephen Kumalo , in which he reflects about family bonds thicker than geographical distance. Later, there is the minister’s touching title song, “Lost in the Stars,” about forlorn humanity adrift under the cold stars. Both songs were sterlingly rendered by Chuck Cooper, whose somewhat stiff acting did not match his vocal prowess.

Then there were the two terrific numbers for Irina: the deeply moving torch song “Trouble Man,” and the lovingly solicitous ballad “Stay Well,” unhappily damaged by the shrillness and mugging of Sherry Boone. Fine, too, was the song bearing the title of Paton’s novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” magisterially delivered by Quentin Earl Darrington as the Chorus Leader, and an endearing comedy number, “Big Mole,” for Stephen’s nephew Alex, irresistibly performed by the child actor Jeremy Gumbs.

Three characters who, for mysterious reasons, have no songs, were nonetheless incisively portrayed by Daniel Breaker as Absalom, Daniel Gerroll as James Jarvis, and John Douglas Thompson, as Stephen’s brother, John, a morally lax, successful opportunist. But I saw why the show didn’t have the musically merited success: despite its quasi-happy ending, it is too serious and sad for popular consumption.

As for me, the acceptable lyrics, shattering story, and seductive Weill score had me stellbound. Weill is one of those composers whose music is a calling card, unmistakably his alone, despite oodles of imitators. Gripping or caressing, declamatory or insinuating, laughing or longing, it targets the gut as much as the ear. Highly chromatic, despite or because of unexpected modulations, the melodies unfailingly hit home and, once there, never leave the ravished memory.

From the two shows discussed, everyone should own at least some of Lotte Lenya’s performances (a plague on Ute Lemper’s later, progressively worse mannerisms.) For Knickerbocker Holiday, there is a 1938 radio broadcast recording with Walter Huston. As for Lost in the Stars, there is a 1974 King Video DVD with Brock Peters and Melba Moore; a 1949 Original Cast recording; and a 1993 studio cast conducted by Julius Rudel.

We move now to Carnegie Hall, for a concert version of Alberic Magnard’s third, last and best, opera, Berenice, with the composer’s libretto based on Racine’s tragedy.  It is the story of the historic love affair between Berenice, queen of Judea, and Titus, son of Vespasian and heir to the imperial Roman throne. Though at various times Titus and/or Berenice think they can be happily married, Mucien (Mucianus), a fervent Roman general, keeps reminding Titus--especially after he has become emperor--of the need to send Berenice packing and marry some politically sanctioned Roman maiden.

Finally, the heartbroken Berenice herself  persuades the profoundly riven emperor that they must part. Sailing away, she makes an offering to Venus, for having allowed her a final tryst with a loving Titus:  she cuts off her gorgeous tresses and tosses them into the sea, whence, back when, the goddess had risen.

At the concert, Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra with his usual schoolmasterly baton in a rather foursquare rendition. The president of Bard College, he is an incomparable programmer, digging up neglected treasures such as this one with tireless taste and acumen. But as a too schematic conductor, he conducts himself less brilliantly. Yet even in imperfect packaging, his choices are worthy of welcome.

Magnard (1865-1914) was a man of great gifts and the highest principles. The son of the wealthy editor of Le Figaro, France’s leading newspaper, he scrupulously sidestepped his father’s wealth and potentially helpful contacts. A bit of a loner, but generous to a fault, he composed a carefully sifted, unvoluminous oeuvre, somewhat under Wagner’s influence, but ultimately his very personal own, and comprising orchestral, operatic, and chamber works of rare quality.

His death was characteristic of his bravery and highmindedness. It was World War I when an occupying German regiment arrived at Baron, not far from Paris, in front of Magnard’s baronial mansion. Rather than surrender, Magnard alone confronted the enemy troop, shooting one man dead. When fire was set to the building, the heroic defender and a sizable part of his works perished with it.

The Berenice music, with its leitmotifs and sustained intensity, is almost too much of a piece, but that piece, melodious yet also dramatic when needed, has only the lightest dustings of Tristan, and of Massenet and d’Indy, with whom Magnard had studied. It emerges, richly chromatic and lushly orchestrated, enticingly unique. Why it remains, like Magnard’s beautiful music in general, so little performed may be based on an initially uncomprehending and unsympathetic reception. If you can ferret out some of the fairly numerous but relatively hard to come by recordings, pick any and be enchanted. Berenice is available at the House of Opera website in a 2001 recording by the Marseille Opera company--now reduced to a mere $5.83.

At Carnegie Hall, the baritone Brian Mulligan was a forcefully projected Titus, but something in his would-be-heroic but merely haughty demeanor undercut his effectiveness. As Berenice, the mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens struck me as perfectly satisfactory, though the one review I caught (in the Times) was rather less than flattering. As Mucien, the bass Gregory Rrinhart fared better in the review, though to me his voice sounded a bit dry. Berenice’s maid, Lia, was sung without special distinction by another mezzo, Margaret Lattimore, but the part doesn’t require much distinction. As mentioned, Botstein’s conducting lacked pizzazz, or even variety, but the work held one’s gratified attention anyway for all its near three-hour duration.

There is something about French music that I especially respond to. Its lyricism seems to me particularly lyrical, airy but also with a quality for which Hungarian has a uniquely apt expression, fulbemaszo (I lack the necessary umlaut and accents), meaning creeping-into-the-ear, i.e., ambushingly tuneful. And there is in it often a playful wit leavening the sentimental—think Poulenc--which I am a sucker for. Furthermore, if the word “aristocratic” can be applied to music, it surely characterizes a work like Berenice.  Though not full of readily detachable arias, it is replete with vocal and orchestral beauties, the whole exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.

So there. This is what I like about concerts: even in imperfect performances, they remain enjoyable. I wish the same could be said for our theater, which is all too often perfect—that is to say perfectly otiose.


  1. Music, because it's essentially sensual, cannot fool people so easily. A play, painting, and sculpture can be sensually unappealing, but the artist can still fool the audience with his rationalized concept/conceit. Thus, even if you don't enjoy it, you can 'think'--or pretentiously fool--yourself into recognizing its importance. But when music doesn't work, you sense it right away. In this sense, music is kina like food. A fashion designer may fool you into wearing something stupid, but it's more difficult for a chef to fool his customer with crappy food.


    But it has versions of SEPTEMBER SONG by Walter Huston, Lotte Lenya, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Lou Reed, Eddie Albert, and many others.

    No Victor Garber. No uploaded John Simon version. Yet.

  3. At least two vintage radio broadcasts survive of Walter Huston performing material from Knickerbocker Holiday. One is a 1938 appearance on Rudy Vallee's variety hour in which Huston does a scene with Jeanne Madden and sings "September Song." The other is a 1945 episode of The Theatre Guild on the Air featuring an hour-long condensation.

    Speaking of theater on the air, I wonder if Mr. Simon would regale us with tales of his experiences in 1940s Harvard radio drama. Or perhaps give us a brief piece about his favorite radio plays.

  4. As always, a very interesting take! I was in the audience for the Berenice performance, and found it to be quite enjoyable. I've always been fond of Botstein's conducting, and I think he brings great playing out of the members of the ASO. With repertoire that rare, it definitely takes a special hand to guide the players to success. I can't wait to hear more!