Showing posts with label George Gershwin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Gershwin. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Great American Songbook Inhabits the Palm Beaches

Some recent events bear witness to the title of this entry.  A focal point, though, is Palm Beach’s The Colony Hotel which has its very own version of Manhattan’s Cafe Carlyle, or any of the well known NYC cabarets, only more intimate.  The Colony’s Royal Room attracts some topnotch American Songbook talent. Also, the Colony’s Polo Lounge Sunday brunch this season featured one of the best jazz pianists, Bill Mays. Sometime ago we heard Mays accompany diva Ann Hampton Callaway (a composer and a great jazz-cabaret singer) at the Eissey Campus Theatre of Palm Beach State College and made it a point to seek him out at the Colony’s Polo Lounge a couple of weeks ago. 
I asked him to play Bill Evans’ Turn Out the Stars, not very frequently performed, a work of beautiful voicing and emotion.  After a break, Mays played it solo, without the bass, effortlessly as if he plays it daily.  To me, it was heartrending. Then we were treated to an impromptu performance by the then featured performer at the Royal Room -- Karen Oberlin.  Amazing how an unrehearsed number by three professionals can be so natural.  Bill Mays’ CD Front Row Seat is exactly as titled – it’s as if he is playing in your living room.

Last month at the Royal Room we also caught Jane Monheit who we saw years ago and who has matured into such a great stylist, with phenomenal range, her latest album, The Songbook Sessions, a tribute to the great Ella Fitzgerald. She gladly posed with Ann for a photo. 

She performed pieces from her album and other numbers with her trio, husband Rick Montalbano on drums, Neal Miner on bass and Michael Kanin on piano, just the perfect combo for classic jazz.  Unfortunately her album (and this is very personal, not a professional observation) included a trumpet player, at times a distraction. I just wonder why the addition of a brass instrument was necessary. The bass, piano, and percussion combo is (to me) ideal for intimate, classic jazz.

Nonetheless, just to tie this together is a YouTube performance by Jane Monheit of Bill Evans’ Turn out the Stars, which was recorded at the Rainbow Room some six years ago.  What a sultry performer, one of our leading jazz first ladies, along with Stacey Kent, two completely different styles but both at the top of their games.

Last Saturday our close friend and neighbor, Nina (the artist who painted “Jessica” which hangs over my piano), who is also a cellist and a singer (do her talents have no bounds?), performed in the Choral Society of the Palm Beaches (S. Mark Aliapoulios, Artistic Director) – at Jupiter’s Florida Atlantic University auditorium. 

This was one of the most diverse programs we’ve seen in a long time, culminating in a partially acted out version of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, a Broadway show which was recently performed at the New York City Opera.

The program’s featured performers made it especially enjoyable, vocalists Lisa Vroman, a soprano with extensive Broadway experience (who played Rosabella in that New York City Opera presentation) and Mark Sanders, a baritone who frequently performs with the Gulf Coast Symphony.  They had the perfect chemistry for performing one of the most beautiful Broadway duets ever written, Loesser’s "My Heart Is So Full of You."

But for me the highlight was the appearance and performance of Paul Posnak, who arranged Four Songs By George Gershwin for two pianos, which he played with the Choral Society’s pianist Dr. Anita Castiglione.  The songs reminded me so much of Earl Wild’s arrangement, Fantasy on Porgy and Bess and after the concert I told him so. He was delighted by the comparison, and it was apt.

Not enough praise can be directed to Dr. Catiglione for her nearly non-stop performance during the 2-1/2 hour program, easily transitioning to soloing, to accompanying, from Gershwin, to Irving Berlin, to Rogers and Hammerstein, to then to Frank Loesser and finally to classical, accompanying songs beautifully sung by the 2016 Young Artist Vocal Competition Winners, Mr. Julian Frias and Ms. Celene Perez, both high school seniors with great artistic careers ahead of them.  Our friend, Nina, was instrumental in organizing this competition.

Judging by these events, the American Songbook thrives and its future seems assured in the Palm Beaches!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An American in Paris in NYC

Last Sunday we ventured into the city to see An American in Paris.  Jonathan saw the preview in Paris of all places and gave us ample advance notice of how spectacular the production was and therefore we were able to buy tickets in the third row center many months ago, perfect seats for the most stirring Broadway musical we’ve seen in recent memory. 

From the South Norwalk train station we emerged into the light at 45th and Vanderbilt.  We had a luncheon reservation at one of our favorite restaurants, Orso’s (conveniently located in NYC’s Restaurant Row between 8th and 9th Avenues on 46th), one we’ve been to on and off during the past 30 years (especially Ann who used to do Wednesday matinees with friends while I toiled away at work : - )

Normally we would walk this, but Ann’s knee has been giving her trouble, so we agreed to “Uber” there and after the show walk back to Grand Central Station when traffic would be impossible anyway.  Uber is an amazing service.  Had a Lincoln Town car picking us up in four minutes and if it were not for the delays getting past 6th Avenue because of the Dominican Republic parade, it would have been a breeze.  Still, we made it in about 12 minutes.  I love the concept of no cash trading hands and getting an email two minutes after we exit the car of the cost ($9.23).

After a delicious lunch, trout for Ann and rigatoni in meat sauce for me (wanted something more hardy – this was to serve as both lunch and dinner), we walked over to the theatre which is on a Times Square I no longer recognize, throngs of people as usual but the panorama reminded me more of Las Vegas than my beloved New York City, packed with tourists of course with the most popular hawked item being those “selfie” sticks.  We’ve become a world of solipsistic hedonists,  selfies snap away and post them on Facebook, just about the most passive act of saying, “hey, look at me!”  So while everyone was clicking away pictures of themselves, with Times Square tumult in the background, I took a few “non-selfie” shots to document the moment and we made our way to the theatre, mobs of people --- mostly tourists it seemed (I seem to forget that is our status now : - ) trying to get into just one narrow entrance. 

Sitting alone on the stage before the performance began is an older grand piano, perhaps much like the one George Gershwin might have composed on.  And that is the conceit of the play – a composer being central to the action, Adam Hochberg (a.k.a Oscar Levant) movingly played by Brandon Uranowitz.  He composes a ballet for a woman he has fallen in love with, Lise Dassin, luminously performed by Leanne Cope.  Unfortunately for him, two other men are in love with her too, Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen).  Because Lise and her family were harbored by Henri’s family during the Nazi occupation of Paris, she feels honor bound to accept his proposal although her heart has clearly been lost to the artist, Jerry, who fell in love with her at first glance.  All the action takes place in post WW II Paris and of course the “book” heavily relies on the movie version of An American in Paris.

In fact, the two leads could easily pass for the two movie leads.  Robert Fairchild, the principal dancer with NYC Ballet, credits the physicality of his dancing to his idol, Gene Kelly, and Leanne Cope is highly reminiscent of Leslie Caron.  But interestingly both Fairchild and Cope are luminaries in the world of ballet, not Broadway theatre.  It is remarkable to witness the transition – even their singing roles were of Broadway caliber.  Ann and I laughed when we heard someone say there was too much ballet in the production.  The dancing was superlative, breathtaking and from our vantage we could see every drop of sweat, and could feel the incredible energy that went into the play. As for the astounding performance by Fairchild, Ann could not stop raving about the perfection of his dancing, his grand jetes, his jazz movements and energy.

Ann was particularly interested in seeing Sara Esty, a talented young dancer she has enjoyed watching from her first performance with the Miami City Ballet when she joined the company several years ago along with her twin sister.  She auditioned and won a part in the Ensemble of this show enjoying the time spent in Paris and blogging about it.  Well to our surprise, we noticed in the Playbill that in addition to this being her Broadway debut; she has been chosen to dance the lead in place of Leanne Cope on the Wednesday matinees, surely an indication of how far along her career has progressed.  Robert Fairchild has substitutes as well for the Wednesday evening and Saturday matinee performances, so we were fortunate to see the leads at our Sunday matinee.

But for me, the heart, the very soul of the production is the music of George Gershwin.  I feel I have a special affinity for his music    -- much of it is the bulk of my more confident piano repertoire.  After hearing this production I’m tempted to play only Gershwin in the future, committing pieces to memory, learning how to play his music even better.

Unlike the film, the Broadway production is far ranging as far as his music is concerned, including pieces I don’t remember in the movie, such as parts of the “Cuban Overture” and many other Gershwin songs.  

An American in Paris is a massive undertaking, even on Broadway, a full orchestra, a large cast and striking, multiple sets.  The pace was intense under the brilliant direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon.  During intermission while Ann went to the ladies room, I texted Jonathan my thanks for pushing us to get tickets early, beginning my text with just two words.  “Intermission.  Fabulous.”  When Ann returned to her seat she said that she texted Jonathan.  I said I did too.  She said, here, look at what I wrote and it began with two words. “Intermission. Fabulous.”
6th Ave. after Dominican Day Parade

Saturday, April 25, 2015

He Had That Certain Feeling

Apparently I’ve reached the point in this blog where I am beginning to circle back on myself.  Earlier this week I gave a Gershwin concert at the Brookdale Senior Living Center of Palm Beach Gardens.  I thought I would write about it and record one of the many pieces I played there.  

So I started to think about what I would say about this special experience--special as it was an all Gershwin program, probably the composer I most admire for his versatility and genius.  He wrote some of the greatest songs for the American Songbook, as well as concert and operatic works (we are seeing American in Paris this summer on Broadway; can’t wait!).  He singlehandedly removed the barrier between jazz and classical music.

Also, of all the composers I play on the piano, my so-called style is most suitable for his works.  I wanted to write about my joy of Gershwin, and as I began I had the nagging feeling that I’ve said all of this before.  Searching my blog I found pretty much what I wanted to say from six years ago! There are some links to some pieces I “home recorded.”  “Google Pages” use to host audios, but no longer does; however, old recordings are grandfathered such as this one of selections from Porgy and Bess.

I had written that entry after attending a live performance of Earl Wild’s arrangement, Fantasy on Porgy and Bess.  But as the former entry tells most of my Gershwin story, I’ll let it speak for itself.  Preparing for this recent concert, I recorded The Man I Love, with the limitations of the USB-size Sony Digital Voice Recorder I use at home, which I can share using Dropbox.  It is best listened to at low volume as the recording device renders it “tinny.”

Via Dropbox I can also share a couple of Gershwin pieces I recorded more than six years ago at a studio, the quality of the recordings better but I can now play these pieces a little more professionally, thanks to some lessons I took a few years ago, Someone To Watch Over Me, and Isn’t It a Pity. 

I can’t imagine where Gershwin would have taken American music if his life wasn’t extinguished by a brain tumor at the age of 38.  But his output during his short life was remarkable, from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway to classical and operatic, to Hollywood.  He could write in all venues and he was a consummate pianist himself.  An excellent, succinct summary of his life and musical accomplishments can be found here.

George Gershwin once said that true music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today.  Indeed, he had that “certain feeling” as this piano roll recording of the master himself playing his song That Certain Feeling attests.

My audience at Brookdale was more than appreciative.  This is the longest of my prepared concerts, lasting a little more than an hour without a break, a medley of 24 songs, including some from Porgy and Bess, and concluding with the theme from Rhapsody in Blue.  The sheet music for all pieces is from The New York Times Gershwin Years in Song (published by Quadrangle Press which was then owned by the NYT). It was presented to me in my publishing days by one of our printers in 1973 and it is a prized possession as the songs include all the introduction sections which, in a George and Ira Gershwin song, can be as interesting as the song itself. I’m grateful to still be playing from this treasure some 42 years later -- and so the circle closes.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


I was going to call this entry “Finale” -- not to describe my last blog entry, but the title of the last CD piano album I will record, my fourth one over the years.  However, on the good advice of an old friend who warned me never to say “never” (as I had said when I wrote about my penultimate CD, Music Makes Us) I’ve changed the title to Masters.  Also, “Finale” sounds maudlin – and I don’t intend it as such whereas “Masters” is a better description of the composers I showcase in this latest CD. 

Nonetheless, I am fairly certain that this is my last recording as I've now covered most of my favorites as well as the different kinds of music I enjoy playing (although all fall under the “Great American Songbook” rubric). Masters is intended to "fill in" some of the blanks in my Broadway repertoire, having already included thirty four songs that were performed on Broadway in my previous CDs.

The "missing" songs are by the composers I feel dwarf all, George Gershwin (with his lyricist, his brother Ira) Richard Rodgers (with Oscar Hammerstein) and Stephen Sondheim.  Masters addresses that lacuna by including twenty-three other songs by these celebrated Broadway innovators.

In an interview by PBS' Great Performances the daughter of Richard Rodgers, Mary Rodgers, related that "Noël Coward once said that Daddy just 'pissed melody.'” She also revealed that "Gershwin was a close friend. If he was ever jealous of anyone — and I don’t mean 'jealous' in any nasty or competitive way — it was Gershwin."  No wonder, Gershwin wrote in all musical genres, Broadway being just one. (And some of the Gershwin songs in this CD were actually written for Hollywood, but written in the Broadway vein.) Who knows where he might have moved music if he hadn't suddenly died so young.   So there is continuity here -- Gershwin knew Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Hammerstein, the lyricist, was a mentor to Sondheim – who naturally began as one as well, but would go on to become a composer of intricate, urbane songs, as well as writing the lyrics.  George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers always had a lyricist to rely on (although after Hammerstein died, Rodgers wrote his own lyrics for the show No Strings).

I should footnote that the music for the last song in the program, Maria, was written by Leonard Bernstein, although I include it here as Sondheim wrote the lyrics and I think his collaboration with Bernstein helped launch his long-time career. Sondheim is now the senior statesman of Broadway and I can't imagine anyone touching his legacy.

There is another reason I decided to work on this album.  This is the first year I've been without a regular “gig,” normally performing at retirement homes during the season.  My contacts at previous intuitions had changed and my season started with adverse health news. I had other things on my mind. So, instead, I turned more inward, playing these songs and others, writing some fiction.  .

It is restricting, just so much time to play the piano, and having a studio recording session one has a tendency to practice these songs more, to the detriment of other piano music.  I'm looking forward to no such responsibilities in the future (other than my “senior circuit” engagements) so I feel this will be my last such recording.


George and Ira Gershwin
Summertime / I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise / Somebody Loves Me / The Man I Love / Embraceable You / Who Cares? / Love Walked In
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
People Will Say We're in Love / The Carousel Waltz / What's the Use of Wond'Rin' / If I Loved You / You'll Never Walk Alone / Bali Ha'i / Some Enchanted Evening / Hello Young Lovers / We Kiss in a Shadow / The Sound of Music / It Might as Well Be Spring  

Stephen Sondheim
Send in the Clowns / Sorry – Grateful / Being Alive / I Remember / Maria (Music by Leonard Bernstein)