Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Evening with Richard Rodgers

Last Saturday night, the Hartford Symphony presented -- with gifted students from the Hartt School Music Theatre and Ballet program -- an evening dedicated to the music of just one man: Richard Rodgers.

Who gets this kind of treatment? Beethoven. Tchaikovsky. I've seen and attended all-Brahms programs, sometimes on successive nights.

But Richard Rodgers? BELIEVE IT. And even if we were to play someone else's music on the same program, it wouldn't matter, because


More than Bach. More than Mozart. More than Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern. No one else comes close.

Think about it. Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies, and a good 15-20 of them are played regularly, around the world. Schubert wrote over 600 songs. How many of them do you know? Let's see . . . Doppelganger, The Earl King, Sylvia, Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Ave Maria, and there are many more.

Did you know Rodgers wrote over 900 songs? You might not be able to name them all, or even half of them, but if someone started singing them for you, you would find yourself saying over and over again, "oh yeah! I know that one (too)."

Because Richard Rodgers not only had the gift of melody, he was astoundingly prolific. He started composing at the age of 9. He made it to Broadway by the age of 18. (Gershwin didn't get there until he was in his 20s.) With Lorenz Hart he created 15 musicals between 1925 and 1930. With Pal Joey (1940) and later By Jupiter, Rodgers had turned in two decades of Broadway success, and had not yet reached the age of 40. If he were Rossini, he would have retired, his legacy secure. But no. Instead he moves on to a new association with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, writing musicals for nearly two decades more.

Let me put it you another way: Richard Rodgers made it to Broadway when Babe Ruth was just getting going. And he was still writing hit tunes when Richard Nixon resigned and Reggie Jackson became known as Mr. October.

If Richard Rodgers had somehow been more flamboyant, more of a bon vivant, hounded by media, then he would rightly take his place as the American Mozart in work and play. Instead, he was family man, with two daughters and a wife he loved (and who loved him). Sure he had a reputation for charming the ladies, but have you ever seen a picture of Rodgers when he wasn't wearing a suit and tie? (I haven't.) The first thing that comes to mind is an accountant, or an actuary. On television, he appeared dour and colorless.

But what a titanic genius! As a friend pointed out to me, Richard Rodgers is the only person to have received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony and 2 Pulitzer Prizes. After awhile, R & H, unhappy with what producers were doing with their shows, decided to start producing shows on their own, making them both fabulously wealthy (which also goes against the grain of what people associate with the laboring, starving artistic genius). Rodgers was so good, he got to a point where he could put on shows without stars, without bankable names. Since the music was so good, people were going to come anyway. Before Oklahoma, anything that got 500 performances was considered a Broadway hit. Laurie and Curly, Ado Annie and Will, Aunt Eller and Jud went on for 2,212 performances. After that colossal hit, one bigwig said to him, "Hang it up, now. You will never do anything better than Oklahoma." Oh yeah? How about Carousel?

So you can see my problem in planning last Saturday's show. The question was not, what to play, but rather, what can we leave out? For how many Broadway composers can you do a show like this, leave out so many hits, and still leave the audience happy? We didn't do anything from The King and I. We didn't do the Carousel Waltz. Not even 'My Funny Valentine,' or 'Out of My Dreams' (my favorite waltz, by the way). And no one cared.

Because this was perhaps the best pops show I have ever done with the Hartford Symphony. With Michael Morris's brilliant direction, Denise Leetch-Moore's majestic choreography, and Alan Rust's theatrical expertise, not to mention those fabulous young men and women from Hartt, we put on a show of shows. The buzz was palpable, from start to finish. The roars began early, and continued throughout.

It was my last pops show as Music Director of the Hartford Symphony, and it was a fabulous way to go out.

getting ready for a World Premiere, and Tchaikovsky

This week will feature the Hartford Symphony's concertmaster, Leonid Sigal, in a new work by Stephen Michael Gryc, Harmonia Mundi, for violin and orchestra. It's a beautiful work, and I'm confident audiences will respond very positively to it.

Last week I was really nervous. It was before our first rehearsal on Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4, a work most of the players have done before, probably several times, and thus is one of those pieces (like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) where a conductor must necessarily come with a unified conception and interpretation, if only to counter the many habits, customs and traditions that accompany a well known work from the standard repertory.

Advancing one's strong ideas about Beethoven is one thing. But Tchaikovsky is a different animal -- the orchestra and I last did his Fourth Symphony in 2002, which is the equivalent of never, as most of these players were not playing in the orchestra 9 years ago (and it was a summer concert, making it even less memorable). On top of that, I haven't done much Tchaikovsky with the orchestra since, and thus we haven't developed a way of doing his music over the course of my tenure.

Add to this an added nervousness because of my big experiment, having created a new edition of sorts. Using my own orchestral materials (most conductors bring their own score but leave the individual orchestra parts, bowings and markings, to the host orchestra), I changed several of the meters in the first movement. You might ask, why? The piece has survived as a great classic since 1878 without anyone doing this before, so why now? Can't it stand on its own, as is?

The answer is yes, of course it can. And it has, for over 130 years. And will continue to do so, thank you very much.

Except for my teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, who first put the idea in my head, no one has ever done what I am about to describe. And in my previous outings, I did not have the time to go through with it. But I figured, as Doc Brown says in "Back to the Future:" what the hell? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, I'll explain.

The first movement is in 9/8 time, which is, for most composers who write in this meter, 123-456-789, and generally conducted in 3 beats to the bar, with a stress on beats 1, 4 and 7. 'Happy Birthday to You' and 'Star Spangled Banner' are also in 3 beats to the bar, but are in simple meter, or 12-34-56 (as opposed to the compound meter in 9/8).

Tchaikovsky divides those 9 small beats in many different ways: sometimes he will have one short beat followed by a 4 bigger beats, so that it comes out sounding like 1 23 45 67 89, and throughout much of the exposition he writes the music in 3 simple beats followed by 1 compound beat, or 12-34-56-789. (One of the most famous compound/simple meter combos is from Bernstein's West Side Story, "America," where it goes back and forth between
123 --- 456 and 12 -- 34 -- 56:

"I like to

live in A--


In the climax of the first movement in Tchaikovsky's Fourth, just before the return, he takes two measures and stretches them into one giant measure, looking (sounding) like this:

12 -- 34 -- 56 -- 78 -- 91 -- 23 -- 45 --67 --89

or, to one's ears, a big giant:

1 --- 2 --- 3 --- 4 --- 5 --- 6 --- 7 --- 8 --- 9

In these two measures, Tchaikovsky expects orchestra players to negotiate all of the cross rhythms, even though they go 'against the grain.' And for most of the music, the players do just that. They're professionals, you expect that of them. But in this place, even for world class orchestras, it can be a crap shoot. In the few times I've conducted Tchaikovsky's 4th, it hasn't always worked to my satisfaction.

And so, for this place, and a few others with complex rhythms, I rewrote the meters (I didn't change a single note) in a manner which projects the actual rhythm of the music. Some would surely object to this, arguing that Tchaikovsky wants the built-in tension left alone, as is. And I can see the merits of that argument. But I was undaunted.

Of course, in the first rehearsal, the players took some time getting used to the changes. But after a few times playing through these spots, these passages came off without a hitch. And the music (i.e., the rhythms) sounded just how I've always heard it in my head, and how I believe the composer wanted it to sound: jagged, off kilter, slightly off balance, creating enormous tension just before the reprise.

Tchaikovsky was highly disturbed when he wrote his Fourth Symphony. He was newly married (even though he was homosexual), attempted suicide, throwing himself into the Moscow River, and was generally resigned to never ever being a happy person (the 'fate' motive at the onset of the symphony reflects this). So it makes sense that, given what he was going through at the time, that Tchaikovsky would put himself out there on the edge of a creative cliff, given the enormous pain he endured while writing this symphony. It's all there in the music.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

June 4 Finale -- be forewarned!

The first piece on my last concert as music director with the Hartford Symphony features a new Requiem by Stephen Montague, who is nothing if not one of the finest dramatists writing music today.

If you don't believe me, check this out. (Stephen is the guy with baton in white tie and tails.) --EC

Friday, May 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Willie

For some reason, I have always remembered May 6 as Willie Mays's birthday. Born in 1931, that marks today as his 80th. And whenever there are new revelations about Barry Bonds having said this or Mark McGuire having (not) said that, it makes me wonder what Willie thinks about all of the commotion that has tainted professional baseball.

Willie Mays started out with the New York Giants, but he didn't come into the full view of this Oakland kid until the team moved west to San Francisco. And for a few years, until the Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland to play in a stadium that I could see from my front yard, the San Francisco Giants, with Mays, Marichal, McCovey et al, were my team.

On my eighth birthday, I got a new skateboard and a trip to Candlestick Park with my Dad and brother, Robert. It was Picture Day, so we got to see the players up close. They were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, with their own young legend-in-the-making, Willie Stargell. We sat in the bleachers behind centerfield, so as to have a perfect view of Mays playing defense. Stargell did not endear himself to me that day, hitting a long fly ball over Mays's head, not quite out of the stadium.

I still have a running video in my head of Mays scrambling frantically for the ball against the cyclone fence, no higher than what you would see in someone's backyard. Mays rifled the ball to second, limiting Stargell to a double. His throw was a dart; you cannot even begin to imagine what power emanated from Mays's arm unless you were to experience from close range.

Over thirty years later, I had the opportunity to share an elevator with Stargell, when he was a guest of the Pittsburgh Symphony, narrating Lincoln's words in Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. I recalled that beautiful August day with him, when he got the better of Mays. Stargell was not well, on dialysis for his kidney ailment. He was an inch or two taller than I, and even though his body was not the tower of strength it once was, he still loomed large in that crowded elevator.

He asked me, "what year?"
"1963," I responded.

Stargell's rookie season. He was the young upstart, having come to San Francisco to proclaim his right to play on the same field (and share the same first name) with my beloved Willie. Stargell lifted his head, shut his eyes a little, trying to recall the events of that day, and then nodded his head in acknowledgement. I guess baseball legends and orchestra conductors have one thing in common -- a prodigious memory.

What I did not have the nerve to tell Mr. Stargell was that Mays could have caught his long fly ball that day. He just ran out of room. As anyone familiar with Mays's unbelievable catch of Vic Wertz's long fly ball in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Mays not only had a great arm and power at the plate, he was fast as they come. And since the playing field of Polo Grounds went on forever, making it nearly impossible to hit a home run to centerfield, Mays simply outran Wertz's deep fly to center, catching it over his left shoulder while still running full speed away from home plate. If you have not seen it, I invite you to do so now:

Happy Birthday, Willie. And thank you for making the childhood of this writer so much brighter with the wonder of your play. Long live the Say Hey Kid!