Category Archives: Music

Come to the Cabaret

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Richard Holbrook is  an artist and a consummate showman.  He is also a dear old friend.  Last night I had the privilege of watching Richard’s new show at Don’t Tell Mama, along with 75 others, many gearing up for the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 25th Annual New York Cabaret Convention (at which Richard will be performing).  So the audience was packed with connoisseurs of the form.  They were on their feet by the end of the show, as was I.

Richard presents an exploration of the songs of Fred Astaire.  (By the way, he is repeating the show next Sunday night at 8).   Most of us think of Fred Astaire primarily as a dancer.  But Richard, who is as good a music historian as he is a performer, tells us that Astaire debuted more songs in the American Songbook than any other singer, and that songwriters loved to write for him.  From the Gershwins to Irving Berlin to Burton Lane (in a real tribute to Richard, Mrs. Burton Lane was in the audience), some of our most-beloved songs were Astaire songs, even if we have come to know them by the covers of other artists.  (I, for one, was surprised by how many songs I associate with Sinatra that were premiered by Astaire.  I probably shouldn’t have been.  Richard tells us that a reason writers liked Astaire was that he sang songs the way they were meant to be sung.  Sinatra — despite his occasional lapses into bad taste – did the same.)

From the opening notes of one of the songs most associated with Astaire, “With a Shine on Your Shoes,”  Richard left no doubt that we were in a for a special evening.  I know Richard to be a kind, elegant, and classy guy.  But boy, can he belt out a tune!  Energy, power, and heart — real heart.  Richard put every bit of his into the show, a gesture of generosity to the audience that deeply appreciated it.  But I don’t want to leave the suggestion that Richard is just a powerful voice.  His singing is beautiful and clear, strongly reminiscent to me in timbre of Mel Torme’s (although probably about a major third in range below Torme, and with a tad more substance than the fog).  Richard’s phrasing is wonderful — he sings songs the way they were meant to be sung.  His respect for the music is a natural expression of his attractive humility.

Richard understands well that each song is a story.  And, using his prodigious knowledge, he spun together the story of Astaire’s musical life (with moments of personal poignance included).  I’m not a big fan of medleys, but Richard managed to combine song fragments in creative and intelligent ways that actually gave me greater understanding of the individual songs.  The excellent Tom Nelson Trio provided great collaboration.  And Richard Barclay’s direction was right on the money, with just enough flash to meet cabaret standards but far more restraint that permitted the music to speak for itself. Go see the show if you have a chance.

Lawrence Mitchell

 

Wringing Music from the Stars

Among the more delightful dimensions of returning home is the opportunity to renew old friendships.  Some have, like me, experienced their own odysseys and returned safely to New York.  Others have never left.  But distance, time, and the peculiar responsibilities of life challenge all but the very most intimate of friendships.  Proximity facilitates.

Among the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of reconnecting is a very dear friend whom I have seen but rarely over the years.  I’ve known Bruce Lazarus since we were about six years old.  That’s a long time.  Only my wonderful friend Phil is of similar vintage.

Bruce is a warm, sweet, funny, and very smart guy.  All of this is clear in his music.  Bruce, you see, is a composer.  He is also a pianist of enormous talent.  I have to confess that, much as I like Bruce, I was a bit jealous in high school.  My pianistic technique could not compare with his.  But envy is a sentiment of the young.  It rather easily transforms into admiration.  I admire his talent the way I do that of writers like Robert Caro and David Foster Wallace.  No matter how good I might become, I will never be that good.  Nobody is.  So let’s call it the admiration of a journeyman for an artist.

Part of resuming friendship with Bruce is, for me, the opportunity to catch up on his music. You may want to, as well.  I’m linking to his website here.  In fact, let me recommend highly that you do.  Bruce’s music is extraordinary.

Last month I was privileged to be present at the world premier of selections from Bruce’s song cycle setting the poetry of Lewis Carroll.  The music was pure delight.  Its humor honored Carroll’s quite well.  There were moments of deep poignancy, revealing pain beneath the laughter.  There was energy and intelligence. And fun.

But  I’ve been listening over the past few weeks to one of Bruce’s major compositions. Messier Catalogue of Star Clusters and Nebulae is Bruce’s setting for piano of selections from the catalogue compiled by Messier in the late 18th century.  According to Bruce, his inspiration was a series of photographs taken with the Hubble telescope (as well as his life-long interest in astronomy.  Bruce and Phil shared this interest seriously.  I was a curious camp follower.)

No surprise to me, the music is wonderful (and Bruce’s playing is about as authoritative as it gets).  I don’t have the vocabulary to do it justice, but I’d like to tell you a bit about it in words that can only convey impressions.  (For those who want Bruce’s own description of the piece, click here.  I haven’t read it yet because I wanted to describe the music in my own way, uninfluenced by the guy that wrote it.  How postmodern of me!)

The piece consists of 14 separate portrayals of specific entries in the Messier catalogue.  They run from about a minute and a half (the shortest) to almost four minutes (the longest), but average about 3 minutes each.

It opens with the “Sombrero” Galaxy.  There is an immediate shimmer in the music with an insistent pulse.  The virtuosity required to coax such ephemeral sounds from the piano is remarkable, and of course Bruce has it. Just as you’re entranced by the dazzling light, the music pauses briefly for a passing lyric, before resuming a declining shimmer into darkness,  rising again, more mysteriously, more distantly, slowing thoughtfully, contemplatively, reluctantly resolving.  It’s quite a start.

Each of the phenomena depicted seems to have its own personality.  By the time we get to the “Crab” Nebula — “Expanding Remnant from Exploded Star,” it is aggressive, brooding, angry.  A little frightening.  Or so it was to me.

What astonishes is Bruce’s ability to create musical geometry.  The striking patterns of the “Ring Nebula” are almost visual in quality.  “The Pleidaes” literally climb.

I was particularly taken with the Andromeda galaxy. It is often steadily rhythmic, with simple melodies repeating over complex harmonies. Bruce uses repetition to transfixing effect.  Like some glorious pattern of light from which you cannot remove your gaze, you are drawn ever more intensely into the swirl.

Bruce’s music is controlled passion, while at the same time deeply intellectual.  You can hear him think, and he makes you think.  But sometimes he achieves levels of sensuality all the more surprising for their departure from the insistent structures.  The “Sunflower Galaxy” is where this happened for me.  Unexpectedly,  he introduces fleeting measures of gorgeous, sumptuous harmony, almost lounge-y in a way, even a bit  transgressive.  There is an intimacy that intertwines the listener with the galaxy, an intimacy that interrupts the posture of observer in which you are cast by most of the music to, almost, the embrace of lover.  But, like the embrace of lovers, it is fleeting, and you are soon hurled back to earth.

I’m getting carried away, so I’ll skip to the last portrait, “Globular Cluster in Hercules.”  Really, “globular” is not a word that, to me, promises beauty.  But what is a name?  We are treated to virtuosic skipping scales and chords. Frankly, I’m not at all sure how he can play them.  The piece begins with a strong directional pull upward, but Bruce is a bit of a tease.  Even as the music climbs, he periodically and rather abruptly pulls you back, keeping you on edge.  The rhythms and the almost quirky interruptions in this selection reminded me very much of Robert Schumann (and, more specifically, Carnival).  Bruce stands on his own, and doesn’t need comparisons with other composers, but Carnival is one of maybe my five favorite pieces to play (when I’m in shape enough to play it), precisely because of these qualities.  So I mean only the very highest praise.

The piece works wonderfully on piano and, as I’m sure Bruce intended, shows off the pianist’s virtuosity and range.  But toward the end I couldn’t help but wonder how, were Ravel alive, it could orchestrate.  I suspect wonderfully well.  (OK, so I started orchestrating it a bit in my head.)  But no matter.  My friend Bruce is a huge talent.  Listen to his music. He’s also a great friend.  I’m glad to be back.

Lawrence Mitchell

 

 

A Night at the Opera

I don’t believe that I have ever been anyplace more elegant than the Metropolitan Opera House.  My affection for the place is compounded by music and memory.  I watched, as a teenager, my hero, Leonard Bernstein, lead the New York premier of his Mass there, that riotous and vaguely blasphemous composition that perplexed Rose Kennedy at its world premier upon the opening of the Kennedy Center.  I recall some years later Klaus Tennstedt conducting Fidlelio, a performance that left me breathless despite the ridiculous dialogue that made me sorry I spoke German.  Or the fireworks of Fabio Luisi’s Don Giovanni just a few years back.

The Met is far more than the music.  It is experience.  And it is experience grounded in time and place, the timelessness of which still overwhelms first time visitors.  Now that I am blessed to live around the corner from the Met, I have enjoyed exploring the theater itself, almost as much as attending performances.

The Met opened in 1966, just two years after the great 1964 New York World’s Fair, about which much has been written lately on its 50th anniversary.  While no more than about 10 miles separates Lincoln Center from Flushing Meadows, the two could not have been farther apart.  The World’s Fair was to be the future.  As many have observed, that future was the present.  The Met was the future, the future that had been becoming since Paris in the 1880s.  The Met freezes in time a very particular mid-’60s elegance, an innocent sophistication that was to be forever destroyed just a few years later by protestation, assassination, recession, and resignation. It was the elegance of the end of the post-war recovery.  The elegance of Audrey Hepburn and cheese fondue.  The elegance of trans-continental flight, increasingly affordable to all, but for which one still dressed. It was the culmination of modernism, and really the very end of the modernist movement, captured in the mass-marketing of Corbusier-style furniture, Bauhaus buildings, and Ben Shahn lithographs.  At its very best, it was modernism for the masses.  And it is perfectly preserved at the Met.

One enters and is embraced by the magnificent upsweep of the biomorphically curving, cantilevered central stairway, pure in its whiteness against the muted crimson of the carpeting. It is as if you were at the very gates of heaven, beckoned upward.  Overhead are explosions of ice from crystalline cores, suspended by improbably thin lines.  The clarity and brilliance of the light dazzles.  These are the famous chandeliers that are repeated inside the auditorium.  Now that I attend the opera more frequently than when I lived out-of-town, I have become an habitué of the cheap seats.  And one of the wonderful advantages of the cheap seats is that you get to see those crystals dim as the performance begins. Starting with intensely brilliant ice, they ever so slowly burnish to orange, lingering for a moment as deeply glowing red embers before their final extinquishment.  For the light show alone, the Met is worth the price of admission.

I mentioned the deep crimson of the carpets and upholstery.  Not brilliant, but burnished.  Burnished like the brass of the stair rails, burnished like the deep subtle gold of the great curtain, burnished like the ever-so-slightly faded gold paint of the proscenium arch and ceiling.  All set off by the richest, darkest of woods, wood that forms most of the walls inside the great theater.

The Metropolitan Opera House is just that elegant.  I think of it as Holly Golightly said of Tiffany’s: “nothing very bad could happen to you there.”  But it has also kept pace with the times.  That is evident in the audience.

The audience at the Met fascinates, and gives great hope for the future of opera.  There was a time when the opera was as much event as performance, and people dressed accordingly. Many still do.  For much of the audience, suits for men and lovely dresses for women are the order of the day.  Even I feel the pull. While I am perfectly comfortable in Avery Fisher Hall wearing slacks and a shirt, I would never go into the Met without a jacket and dress shirt. And usually a tie. But, as is the way of progress and modernity, times have changed.  Tweedy men, and women with fanny packs, are almost as common as the well-dressed.  I watched with amusement turning to admiration a few weeks ago as I gazed down upon the Grand Tier Restaurant and saw a gentleman in a New York Islanders jersey and jeans enjoy his dinner, replete with a bottle of wine.  The occasional cross-dresser (c’mon, this is the opera after all), and serious young men and women in their finest clothes.

In fact, these are two aspects of the Met that are delightful.  When I lived in Our Nation’s Capital and attended the Washington Opera I was, almost invariably, one of the youngest members of the audience.  And I am far from young. One sees, at the Met, many younger people, so many that it is hardly remarkable.  That is great promise for the future of opera. And, almost uniformly, the younger people dress as people always have dressed to attend the opera.  Whatever casual Friday or Wednesday or Monday they observe at work, the opera commands their respect.  And, to my eye, the space demands it.  After all, the audience is part of the scenery, and with scenery so elegant, elegance is commanded.

While I abjure $15 for a glass of poor Scotch or wine, the quality of space and abundance of bars turns intermission into a cocktail party, at least if you are accustomed to cocktail parties with long lines to the rest rooms.  And intermission is part of the elegance of the Met.  Intermissions at the Met are leisurely affairs, designed as much to allow you to absorb the act just ended and prepare for the one to come as to allow for set changes and a break for the singers. Intermission allows you to look out the monumental windows, past the backs of the great Chagall murals, into the Lincoln Center night and the brilliance of the fountain.  It allows you to look over the the beautiful stone terrace of the Mercedes Bass Grand Tier, or even wander out into the cool evening, backlit by the lantern that is the Met at night.

There are structures that capture a moment. There are structures that reflect a civilization.  There are structures that tell tales.  The Metropolitan Opera House is all of these.  And in all of these, it is timeless.  May it ever stand.

Lawrence Mitchell

I’m In Love Again

Six o’clock on a Saturday evening in May at Birdland is probably nobody’s idea of hip.  But for us, and it seemed for the rest of the happy few in attendance, it was transcendent.  Barbara Carroll’s set goes down for me as one of the five or so performances that changed my life.

We were there almost by accident.  I had been planning an evening at the opera but, around three, my companion and I decided that — as much as I love Cosi Fan Tutte– an investment of almost four hours wasn’t in the cards.  And the early show at the Vanguard was sold out.  So I happened upon Ms. Carroll’s performance.  I had never seen this particular jazz legend live, and so it was that we settled at our table shortly after five.

Birdland at that hour is a bit surreal.  The black walls, the dim lights, the very essence of the deep, transgressive night — and sunlight peaking through the windows. It seemed almost obscene to be there before darkness.   Ms. Carroll outshone the stars.

I worried as she walked onto the platform, aided by her perfectly-paired bassist, Jay Leonhart, whether she would make it to the keyboard.  Ms. Carroll is stunningly beautiful, elegant, frail, and 89 years old.   She steadied herself at the piano, turned to the audience, and beamed the smile that was to come back repeatedly through the evening.  Trembling slightly, she sat.

Her opening chords obliterated any doubt.  As she began her sonata -like rendition of the deeply meaningful, “Let’s Face the Music,”  I knew we were in for something special. And when, as she hit her groove several measures later, she bopped the keyboard with that magnificent smile, I began uncontrollably to grin and, except for those few moments where I was truly overcome, couldn’t stop.

What made this performance so special?  Obviously, one doesn’t often see an 89 year old performing as if she were at the top of her game.  But she is.  Her chops are just fine, thank you, whether introducing contrapuntal Bach lines into a number or slipping in a phrase or two from a Gershwin prelude, from barrel rolls to dancing arpeggios – Ms. Carroll plays. That would have been enough.  But there was so much more.  As my erstwhile companion, whose musical taste and human insight I judge to be impeccable, put it:  “She knows everything.”

Ms.Carroll does know everything.  At least everything that matters.  From her sexy, sly, and provocative come-on, Bart Howard’s, “You Are Not My First Love,” to her utterly convincing rendition of Cy Coleman and Peggy Lee’s, “I’m in Love Again,”  Ms. Carroll yielded nothing to age, and everything to talent, experience, and her deep knowledge of what it is truly to be human.  “Nothing bothers me now, I enjoy everything,” she sang, looking out at us smiling, and we knew the truth of it.

She sang to each of us.  She made me feel as if there was nobody in the house but me. And, what she was showing us, was how to live. Her song selection was brilliant, each one progressing through a marvelous story of life.  Eleanor Roosevelt told us that while a beautiful young person is an accident of nature, a beautiful old person is a work of art.  Ms. Carroll is beauty, simpliciter.  And, last night, I fell in love with her.

She concluded the formal set with Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friends.”  I have to confess that my eyes weren’t dry at that point.  When I went to thank her after the performance, she took my hands in hers, looked at me, waited as if she had all the time in the world.  The only words I could manage, were ‘thank you.”  And she gave me that world-embracing smile.

Who is like Barbara Carroll?  As Sondheim wrote, “damn few.”

Lawrence Mitchell