Showing posts with label Rodgers and Hammerstein. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rodgers and Hammerstein. Show all posts

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)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Plaintive Melodies

As much as we enjoy returning to live on our boat in Connecticut, the worst thing about summer is leaving my piano behind.  If I was a professional, or played nearly at that level, it would be intolerable.  But I remember having once worked with the great harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick (in the capacity of publishing and cataloging the works of Scarlatti), visiting him at his home in Guilford CT which was populated by harpsichords and grand pianos.  He had made lunch for us, with some wine, and before we got back to work I timidly asked him whether he might like to play a piece.  He looked at me as if I had lost my mind, saying he never gives private audiences and especially not after a glass of wine.  I wondered, doesn't the love of music transcend everything else? 

Contrast that experience to the one I had with Henry Steele Commager, who was the dean of American intellectual historians.  I used to visit him in Amherst and we would work in his study on the second floor.  On the first floor he had a baby grand piano and one day, again after lunch, I asked him whether he played.  He raced to the piano and I quietly sat listening to him play a Beethoven sonata, and very competently. For Commager, playing the piano was his creative outlet and during that moment historian took second place.  I understand that.

My piano has been good to me this past year and in fact we've been partners, preparing programs that I performed at the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, a rehab facility, and at The Waterford in Juno Beach, a retirement home.  Actually, most of the music I played at the Hanley Center was impromptu from fake books but at the Waterford I gave musical presentations with some commentary (Ann frequently helping me with the latter), something I really enjoyed doing, and now have programs for the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and songs of the Great American Songbook as immortalized by Frank Sinatra.  

Next season, I'll do others and perhaps record another CD at a professional studio.

Of course I have no illusions about the enduring value of such recordings, other than having goals keeps one young, and it is a joy to be able to play.  Luckily for me, my kind of piano playing -- reading the melody line and improvising with chords -- is sort of like riding a bicycle; once you know how to ride, you can do it anytime without frequently practicing.  So, a summer away from my friend doesn't really set me back in terms of my ability to play. 

Nonetheless, as we prepare to leave, I look at my piano with a melancholy regret and I tend to play pieces that reflect that mood. Recently, I found myself playing some Bill Evans songs, constantly reverting to his "Time Remembered" -- a piece with abstract, floating harmonies, not exactly melodic.  It reminds me a little of Debussy, but in a more abstract form, so I found myself fiddling around with some classical music, not one of my musical strengths, but what better piece to play than Debussy's "Reveries" as a bookend for the Bill Evans piece.  From there I turned to one of Stephen Sondheim's most beautiful ballads, "Johanna" from Sweeny Todd,  much more structured than the Evans piece, but all three musical compositions share this sense of the plaintive. 

I set up my camera and recorded the Sondheim piece, a brief rendition (BlogSpot has restrictions on video size).  It is less than two minutes. and as I never play a piece the same way twice, improvising much of it, when recording (especially video with just a digital camera in our echoing living room), some self consciousness encroaches.  Nonetheless, I include this below as a musical statement of the moment and particularly because "Johanna" most accurately captures my mood.   Whoever said Sondheim can't write a beautiful melody is crazy as this is one of the most haunting songs I know.  It is also one of his few outright love songs.

We'll be on the road soon and the blog will go quiet for a while.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

He jes' keeps rollin’ along

Last night we had the pleasure of seeing the last of the season’s Florida Sunshine Pops series of concerts at our nearby Eissey Campus Theatre. I’ve written about the Pops before and its gifted, octogenarian conductor, Richard Hayman.

This was a special concert devoted to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the undisputed Broadway innovators who, with Oklahoma!, changed everything about the Broadway musical. Their contributions to the Great American Songbook are legendary.

So yesterday’s concert was a “grand night for singing” and that is what makes this series so special: the level of the talent and professionalism that accompanies the orchestra. Last night’s featured performers were William Michaels, Lisa Vroman, and Stephen Buntrock all leading players on Broadway. They were joined by the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men's Chorus, giving a truly inspirational dimension to those particular songs that so readily lend themselves to choral accompaniment such as Climb Every Mountain or Oklahoma! (which we learned, last night, was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in a half hour while the show was being previewed in New Haven).

Another highpoint was the Florida Pop’s rendition of the beautiful Carousel Waltz, no doubt orchestrated by the maestro himself, Richard Hayman. If it were not for Johann Strauss, Jr, I think Richard Rodgers would be known at the “waltz king” as so many of his greatest pieces were in three quarter tempo.

But for me, the solos by Michals, Vroman, and Buntrock, were especially remarkable, not only for the quality of their voices but as Broadway trained actors, by their ability to communicate the emotion of the song as they comport themselves on the stage.

Naturally, I had my favorites, Lisa Vroman has a Julie Andrews voice and in fact sung The Lonely Goatherd, the yodeling ditty so closely identified with Andrews from The Sound of Music.

William Michaels is currently appearing in the landmark revival South Pacific at Lincoln Center. His rich baritone voice lends itself to the role of Emile de Becque but last night he sang what some have called the greatest song from the American musical theatre, Ol’ Man River from Showboat (artistic license: music by Jerome Kern, but lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein). Hammerstein described it as “a song of resignation with protest implied.” Perhaps it is a song for our times and my piano rendition is here.

Then there was Stephen Buntrock’s rendition of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin the opening song from Oklahoma!, sung by the cowboy, Curly. In fact, Buntrock recently appeared as Curly in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma! so he follows in the tradition of Alfred Drake, Howard Keel, and Gordon Macrae. It’s a delicate, beautiful song, an uncharacteristic opening song for a Broadway musical, but after all, this was the musical that established a new direction for the musical theatre, making the music intrinsic to the plot, driving character development. My piano rendition of Oh What a Beautiful Mornin can be heard here.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

West Palm Beach Hosts Sondheim

As Stephen Sondheim would say, “life is Company!” A few days ago we saw the great man himself at the Kravis Center in “A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim” with musical examples. As Updike is to contemporary American literature, Sondheim is to contemporary American music. When he walked onto the stage, Ann and I held our breath: a living legend before us. We’ve seen many Sondheim shows and revivals and even have a small “connection” with him through our old hometown of Westport, Ct. where Sondheim served as an apprentice at the Westport Country Playhouse in 1950. But this was such a different experience.

I wasn’t sure what such an evening might be like, although I suspected the venue would be a discussion prompted by a moderator, in this case Sean Patrick Flahaven the Associate Editor of The Sondheim Review with musical illustrations by Kate Baldwin who apparently was a last minute replacement for Christine Ebersole. Kate is a quintessential Sondheim singer, someone with a wonderful voice who articulates every word with the emotive intent of the song. The pianist, Scott Cady, was equally up to the task of communicating the subtleties and rhythms of the master’s music.

In fact, that is what Sondheim’s work is all about, the perfect marriage of lyric and music. As he explained in his “Conversation,” “I write for actors.” I watched him watch Kate sing the examples, wondering, exactly what was he thinking. Was he remembering how and when he wrote those pieces, or was he subliminally critiquing her performance, or was he just taking in the evening, as we were, a tribute to a legend?

I had hoped to hear more about the music itself, his comments on the particular pieces that were sung during the evening, but most of the night was about his reminiscences of his fabulous career. Having followed Sondheim, I was familiar with most of his musical works but was amused by some of the “inside information” he shared such as, in addition to Sweeny Todd, his musical Into the Woods had been prepared for film, although it never made it to the screen. This version was created with Jim Henson puppets alongside such luminaries as Robin Williams, Roseanne Barr and Steve Martin. With Henson’s death, this project ended.

I also learned he wrote a musical, Saturday Night, in 1954 when he was only 23, but it was not produced until about ten years ago. I think of it as a precursor to his portrayal of urban life in his breakthrough musical Company (the first Sondheim musical we saw when we lived in Manhattan in 1970). Saturday Night has a breathtakingly beautiful piece “What More do I Need?” which Kate Baldwin sung as the opening example. I was so taken with it I immediately bought an mp3 copy on Amazon (very competently sung by Dawn Upshaw but I like Kate’s version which is only accompanied by the piano) and then downloaded the sheet music from using the Solero Music Viewer (great service for musicians – allows you to buy just one piece, download it, even transpose it, and then print it). I’ve been sort of “consumed” playing the song since then. It can be seen on YouTube, sung by Anne Hathaway of all people (never knew she could sing so well).

Rodgers and Hammerstein brought the musical to a new plane making the songs intrinsic to the plot. (Hammerstein in fact was Sondheim’s mentor.) With Company Sondheim took the Broadway musical to the next level, and he has elevated it ever since. Sondheim is in a class of his own. As he explained in “Conversations” Company is not a plot driven musical. He thinks of it as it as a work of art you can look at from different perspectives and find different meanings.

Before seeing “Conversations” we rented the brilliant 2007 revival of the show, filmed for PBS and now available on DVD, staring Raul Esparza. Esparza’s interview on the DVD is worth the price alone – how it feels to play in a Sondheim musical. Company is chock full of Sondheim’s trademark conversational songs, works of art in their own right, looking at the foibles of relationships and what life means without them. Baldwin sang “Another Hundred People” from the show.

Most of my piano repertoire is focused on the great American Songbook, the work of Bill Evans, and the music of Stephen Sondheim. I regularly play his pieces; they are intricate, and while some are not necessarily melodic, many are beautiful, and all are memorable. His lyrics and music are so closely intertwined that just hearing the music is like looking at an impressionist painting without the brush stokes or reflections of light. But, I hear the lyrics in my mind as I play, and I am continually drawn to his work.

“Not a Day Goes By” is one of Sondheim’s more poignant ballads which is sung twice in his 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, first as a statement of a husband’s unequivocal love for a wife who now wants to divorce him, and then as a reprisal (in this musical time goes backward) on the day they were married. The ambiguous lyrics can be read at and my rendition of the song can be heard here:

[Sorry, but the link to this song was subsequently removed by Google Pages]

Life is Company. Thank you Stephen Sondheim!