Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

..snippets of the series

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This concept, for a library music series, started with a presentation at the Deanwood Library, here in DC, of a session on “ragtime” –as Eubie Blake called it; he’d use that word all his life, unable to utter the term ‘jazz’ because of its unsavory connotations, which he learned from his days playing the keyboard at a bordello..

That program ran the thread of ragtime from Scott Joplin, through Blake, to the classical weave of George Gershwin, giving opportunity for diverse musical examples of syncopation, jive and passion, with Dana Scott on keyboard, playing Blake’s sassy Baltimore Rag, and then some of Gershwin’s swagger, from his piano Preludes.

The session offered opportunity to present a snippet from a different, earlier “American opera” effort by Gershwin: Blue Monday, where the composer’s grasp reached through Puccini, to pull in the stitching of jazz rhythms and uptown beats, in a short horror story of jealousy and consequence..

The session which followed looked at the blurring line between ‘opera’ and ‘musical theatre’, as American musicals, of the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s steered through the creative prisms of classical composers, were enriched by their language, and drew audiences to Broadway, who then grew accustomed to the kaleidoscopic orchestral extravagances and musical complexities –although, not always easily.

We started with Giacomo Puccini’s stretch at “operetta”, which resulted in his La Rondine, a work he termed as “..a light sentimental opera with touches of comedy –but it’s agreeable, easy to sing, with a little waltz music, and lively and fetching tunes –it’s a sort of reaction against the repulsive music of today.”  The sentiment was stated in 1914…!

Elisabeth Stevens, a dramatic soprano of incredible voice and personal style, offered the ‘hit aria’ from La Rondine; ‘che bel sogno..’

Dana Scott, accompanist; Elisabeth Stevens, soprano; music series, at Deanwood Library, July 2011

Kurt Weill was invoked then; the German composer, after moving to New York, met Ira Gershwin at a party, given by George Gershwin; the Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill collaboration resulted in one of Broadway’s most unique musical extravaganza’s – Lady In The Dark.

The baritone, John Gauthier, gave the Deanwood Library audience the flavor of Weil’s American angst, with the heartbreak of the ‘song’ Lonely House, from Street Scene..

And then we hit the stride of Leonard Bernstein, and his sculpting of the ‘blur’, in the blurred line that seemed to seam Broadway to opera; starting with an excerpt from Wonderful Town, and then moving into the work that showered the composer with the greatest amount of scathing critical sniping: Candide!

During pre-production rehearsals for Candide, Bernstein fought to keep his score together, as other members of the creative team called on him to cut out more and more of the sweeping, or what they considered to be “operatic”, passages of the work; Columbia Records initially declined to record the cast album, saying the score was too depressing and too difficult..

Now this true piece of musical American history has an irreproachable place in the repertory of both musical theaters, and opera houses.

But it was with West Side Story that Bernstein shattered the walls, with a searing musical theater drama that exemplified a mastery of orchestration, and a melodic musical language that easily stood on planks of ‘Broadway flair’, and ‘operatic pathos’..

We had students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts offer an example from this work, with the Anita/Maria duet, A boy like that; Julia Braxton, sang Maria, and India Reynolds, sang Anita..

Julia Braxton, as Maria; India Reynolds, as Anita; music series, at Deanwood Library, July 2011

Their presentation so completely drew in the Deanwood audience, of day camp kids and community residents, that its heartrending conclusion was met with a full ovation!

It is a wonderful feeling, to create platform for professionals and students, and find partnerships that bring musical offerings of diversion and complexity to community audiences, allowing these singers to example a vocation not generally available for view across the wards of DC..

-..and watch, as their passion is witnessed by an enthusiastic and generous crowd, absolutely engaged, and lifted, through presentation of these abilities..

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