To hear a great musical masterwork performed to perfection by master craftspeople is worth waiting for. Sometimes the effect can be overwhelming, and sometimes not. Anticipation can get the best of you, knowing that you are in for something out of the ordinary. Likewise, disappointment is around the corner if the outcome isn’t what you expected.
For example, could an unsuspecting Metropolitan Opera audience (and worldwide listeners tuned in to their radios) have known that during the Saturday intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth, performed on the afternoon of January 23, 1988, an elderly audience member would plunge to his death from the auditorium’s top balcony? No one could, until it actually happened. As a result, the rest of the performance was cancelled.
The fall would be ruled a suicide. Bantcho Bantchevsky, the 82-year-old man involved, had been a regular at the opera house for many seasons. In declining health and fortunes, and having suffered a recent heart ailment, Mr. Bantchevsky, who normally sat in the orchestra, decided to end his life in dramatic fashion.
Bantcho chose the time and the place as well as the method of his demise. But most of us are not so fortunate. Life has a way of choosing for us. And, more times than not, our choices are governed by unfolding events.
Nearly thirty years later, on the Saturday afternoon of December 2, 2017, the Met launched its 2017-2018 radio broadcast and Live in HD season with another Verdi masterwork, the Messa da Requiem, or Requiem Mass. (For the background to this towering and emotionally compelling piece, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/the-fab-four-of-opera-mozart-verdi-wagner-puccini-part-three/.)
This was not the first time the Met has performed Verdi’s opus. However, I do not recall a Saturday radio broadcast devoted exclusively to it — at least not lately. Nevertheless, the performance was dedicated, as all four of the sold-out performances were, to the memory of the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom I recently wrote about (please see the following link to last week’s post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/and-the-curtain-slowly-falls-the-passing-of-classical-music-artists-in-2016-2017/).
The four soloists that headlined this showcase consisted of Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. Chorus master Donald Palumbo was in charge of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and Music Director Emeritus James Levine led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, two of the finest ensembles to be found anywhere.
Starting off softly with the bowing of the cellos, the chorus enters along with the strings. It solemnly intones the first lines, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine – “Grant them eternal rest, Lord.” A brief a cappella section follows; then, all four soloists enter. One by one, starting with the tenor, they proclaim the Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), which is the characteristic opening line of every Roman Catholic mass. Embellished to a degree by each of the singers, they are joined by the chorus in the concluding repetition of Kyrie eleison.
Suddenly, and without warning (the better to shock audiences into submission), pandemonium breaks out in the orchestra, a veritable Hell on earth: vigorous string movements collide with thunderous whacks on a gigantic bass drum; the blasting of the brass section (Tuba mirum spargens sonum – “The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound”), the chorus practically spitting out the words Dies Irae, dies illa — that fateful Day of Wrath when the heavenly trumpets shall sound and the earth cracks open; where the dead rise up with the living to face their Maker.
In this fiery recreation of the Last Judgment, Verdi summoned up every ounce of skill he had as a musical dramatist. Shades of his previous work, most notably Don Carlos and Aida, resound in the vocal and orchestral lines, along with hints of the masterpieces Otello and Falstaff to come. In the hands of an ensemble up to the task, this impressionable portion of the Requiem should knock the literal socks off us listeners.
I once experienced this feeling when, at Carnegie Hall in May 1982, yours truly was present at maestro Lorin Maazel’s farewell concert of this work with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. I can vouch for the hall’s celebrated acoustics. Indeed, every filigree of sound was clearly and discernibly audible. Those tremendous bass drum smacks shook the very foundation of the place. There was a general feeling of both awesome grandeur and respectful religiosity, as befit the occasion in question.
Few of these qualities emerged in James Levine’s cautious reading, although the Met Chorus shone brilliantly in its moments under the spotlight. The Met Opera Orchestra, too, remained as pliable and responsive as always, if slightly devoid of its customary sheen. None of those spine-tingling moments guaranteed to send a shudder down one’s back, or grab you by the collar, or shake the life-blood out of your system, manifested themselves in this performance. Sorry to say, it remained stubbornly earthbound.
With the exception of the veteran Furlanetto who, despite some noticeable strain on top, managed to inject pure terror into the haunting words of Mors supebit et natura (“Death and nature will be stupefied”) — a superb acting job, I might add — none of the other soloists approached this level of artistry. Both Stoyanova and Semenchuk came off better vocally than verbally in their individual numbers and duets, with many of their words getting lost in mushy projection. Antonenko, in his solo, Ingemisco tamquam reus (“I groan as a guilty man”), displayed a worrisome wobble every time he strayed into high-note territory.
Then again, the occasion was a somber one, and not the usual festive affair. Even before Hvorostovky’s passing, I mentioned the rather offbeat programming of the Requiem, done in contemplation of the Met Opera’s perilous financial condition.
Let me spell it out for anyone whose grasp of subtlety remains less than acute: to begin the radio broadcast season with a work honoring the deceased (in this case, the late Hvorostovsky, although Verdi dedicated the piece to famed author Alessandro Manzoni) is tantamount to admitting the inevitable: Are we paying tribute to a failing institution — that is, the Metropolitan Opera itself— and the dying art of opera? Are we about to embark on a series of cost-cutting measures (fed by ever-distressing news from our Congress) that will end with curtailment of any future opera seasons?
We await further news along this front.
What Goes Around Comes Around
The title of this post, “Quid sum miser,” is taken from one of the sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead, that is, the notoriously apocalyptic Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). It is first voiced by the mezzo in gently hushed tones. She is joined by the soprano and tenor as the solo transmogrifies into a trio. The full Latin text is given below:
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus?
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
It translates to the following:
Then what am I, a wretch, to say?
To whom should I make my appeal?
When even the just are in need of mercy?
Later that same Saturday and throughout the following week, the news broke that longtime maestro and Met Opera music director James Levine — a revered figure in New York’s classical music circles, and beyond, for well on 45 years — had been accused more than three decades prior of the sexual abuse of several men when they were teenagers.
There have been rumors circulating to this effect for quite some time. Whether or not Met Opera management had anything to do with playing down the gravity of these charges, or whether maestro Levine, 74, (and, by implication, any of his “enablers”) will continue to deny these stories as unconfirmed accusations, the sad part is that only NOW such matters are being taken seriously and investigated. If there was the possibility of a crime being committed, then it must be ferreted out.
Consequently, the Met suspended maestro Levine for the rest of the season (he had been scheduled to conduct several more works there), leaving his continued association with the company in doubt. Health-wise, Levine has been in a debilitated physical state for a number of years now, due to numerous back injuries brought about by falls in or about his home. Because of his condition, a specially-constructed conductor’s podium, which rises from below the house’s orchestra pit, was set up for his specific use. What is to become of this contraption?
Along similar lines, New York Times’ classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote a self-explanatory postmortem the other day titled “Should I Put Away My James Levine Recordings?” Good question! Do we stop listening to maestro Levine’s many excellent recorded mementos because of these latest developments? One can say the same about other artists in the entertainment and broadcast field (I will not get into the political arena).
Michael Smerkonish, CNN’s television presenter and talk-radio host, voiced similar concerns regarding the likes of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others. “Is it okay to enjoy the work of those accused of sexual misconduct?” he asked on the air. “Can we as consumers continue to enjoy the fruits of the labor of those who are now under a cloud of suspicion?”
The above-named men weren’t the only ones to have been charged with impropriety. Add to them the names of Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Bryan Singer; from the past, we should also mention Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Puccini, Wagner, Diaghilev — the list is long and troubling. Although Smerconish mentioned some of these individuals, historically sexual abuse or misconduct, including within the Catholic Church, has been far too prevalent, and not only against women but against men and underage children, too.
“People in the public eye,” Smerconish went on to say, “tend to be larger than life by the definition, but when we hear the sordid details [of their abuse], what does it mean with our past relationships to their work? I’m having trouble making up my mind.” He’s not the only one!
What are we to say, wretches that we are, when faced with such revelations? To whom should we make our appeal? What does one do when even the just among us are in need of mercy?
As I mentioned at the outset, the expectation of something out of the ordinary can lead to disappointment. We do not choose the time of our demise. Events unfolding before us, often out of our control, make the choice for us. It’s a safe bet that maestro Levine will no longer conduct at the Met, or anyplace else.
In order to reconcile ourselves with our Maker, the church teaches us to confess our sins, to be contrite in our confession, and to go and sin no more. We are all fallible and in need of redemption. And we all fall short. This is the message of Verdi’s piece.
The Requiem concludes with this final prayer for deliverance:
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris judicare seclum per ignem.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved
When you will come to judge the world by fire.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
With the old year winding down and the new Metropolitan Opera broadcast season gearing up, let me pay tribute to some of the classical-music artists, singers, musicians, and craftspeople who have passed on to their heavenly reward. I have broken them out based on voice category or their specific field of endeavor:
Peter Allen (September 17, 1920 – October 8, 2016) was the Met Opera’s radio host for 29 seasons, starting in January 1975 after the company’s longtime announcer, Milton Cross, had suddenly passed away after 43 years of service. I remember both Cross and Allen, and between them there were lots and lots of opera talk, not to mention the knowledge imparted about those broadcast works. To me, Cross almost always came across as pompous and aloof, a byproduct of an earlier era of radio journalism. But with Allen (born Harold Levy in Toronto, Canada), there was a gentlemanly manner and easy affability about him, along with a natural Canadian reserve. A most erudite individual, Allen became a radio announcer upon graduation from Ohio State University, eventually moving to New York and serving as radio station WQXR’s classical-music announcer from 1947 until his retirement. He went on to earn a reputation of grace under fire, of composure and imperturbability in the midst of chaos. His smooth delivery and soothing conversational style were never grating or perturbing, a true professional in every way. And Allen absolutely adored opera. I will never forget how he delivered Tosca’s last line in Act III, just before she leapt to her death — conveyed to worldwide audiences in a most unassuming manner. With bite as well as no small degree of bemusement, Allen spoke the fabled words: “Scarpia, we meet before God!” You could almost see the announcer grinning behind his bespectacled bearing. Allen stepped down in September 2004 when Margaret Juntwait was chosen to replace him.
Neville Marriner (April 15, 1924 – October 2, 2016) and Georges Prêtre (August 14, 1924 – January 4, 2017) had overlapping podium careers. Born four months apart (Marriner in the United Kingdom, Prêtre in France), they both started playing jazz at an early age. In addition to being an accomplished violinist, Marriner studied at the Royal College of Music in London, while Prêtre, who preferred the trumpet, took up the conducting art at the Paris Conservatory. Prêtre led his first opera at Marseilles in 1946. The work was Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, which he recorded in 1962 with tenor Jon Vickers, mezzo Rita Gorr and baritone Ernest Blanc. Not necessarily an opera conductor but known primarily for his founding of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (a chamber ensemble at its start), Marriner achieved worldwide fame and recognition with the soundtrack to director Miloš Forman’s 1984 film of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. Throughout the years, Marriner’s Mozart recordings with the Academy of St. Martin’s won numerous Grammy Awards and other distinctions. Prêtre continued to work with various orchestras throughout his lengthy career. Fans of soprano Maria Callas will recall his podium presence for her various comeback concerts and recital albums, including an EMI/Angel Records stereo remake of Tosca featuring her frequent onstage co-star Tito Gobbi and tenor Carlos Bergonzi; and a marvelously atmospheric reading of Bizet’s Carmen (which Callas never sang on the stage) with the late Nicolai Gedda (see below).
Jeffrey Tate (April 28, 1943 – June 2, 2017) was a physician by training (he was an eye specialist at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London) before becoming a musician. Tate overcame two childhood ailments, congenital spina bifida and kyphosis (curvature of the spine), to devote full-time to medicine, although he remained undecided about a career for some time. He eventually abandoned medicine for music around 1970-71, studying at the London Opera Centre and then at Covent Garden. Some of his early conducting mentors were Georg Solti, Colin Davis, and Josef Krips. A chance meeting with conductor and avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez led to Tate’s appointment as Boulez’s assistant at the 1976 centennial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He was later offered a position in Cologne, where after much cajoling he was persuaded to conduct Carmen in Sweden. This led to further engagements throughout Europe, conducting Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Tate made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1980, leading a revival of Alban Berg’s Lulu, a historic production which included the restored third act. Primarily a conductor of the classical repertoire — he was chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra since 2009 — Tate spent much of his time in the opera houses of Europe and England and giving concerts, especially in Germany where he made his home. He passed away of a heart attack at an orchestra rehearsal at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy.
Gigliola Frazzoni (February 22, 1923 – December 3, 2016) was born in Bologna. She studied with former diva Blanche Marchesi and, according to Frazzoni’s Official Website, made her professional debut on October 4, 1947 in the minor role of Samaritana in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. Frazzoni was a lyric soprano with a strong dramatic flair that endeared her to Italian audiences. Because of her fear of flying, Frazzoni’s career was limited to the European Continent, specifically to Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, and Egypt. Although it limited her exposure abroad (she made few studio recordings), Frazzoni can still be heard as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West in a live 1956 transmission from La Scala, alongside colleagues Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi, and conductor Antonino Votto. Radio commentator Ira Siff’s review of the recording for Opera News emphasized that “Frazzoni’s Minnie fairly leaps out of the speakers; her fragility, courage, longing and despair tug at the heart of the listener.” Americans never got to hear the singer in her prime. However, this recorded memento of her art remains a testament to the fire and viability of Italian verismo from one of its chief proponents.
Roberta Peters (May 4, 1930 – January 18, 2017), Patrice Munsel (May 14, 1925 – August 4, 2016), and Brenda Lewis (March 2, 1921 – September 16, 2017) all made their Metropolitan Opera and/or professional debuts within a few years of each other. Brenda Lewis (born Birdie Solomon), the oldest of the group, first appeared as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Philadelphia Opera in 1941. She became a mainstay at the New York City Opera for 22 seasons (from 1945-1967), while her Met Opera debut took place on January 24, 1952 as Musetta in La Bohème, opposite Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão. A versatile artist encompassing a wide range of styles and vocal demands, Lewis made her mark in two important American works, Marc Blitzstein’s Regina and especially Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, as well as in musical theater (Call Me Madam, Kiss Me, Kate, and Annie Get Your Gun). Patrice Munsel (née Munsil), the second oldest, was the youngest singer ever to have debuted at the Met, taking on the coloratura part of Philine in Thomas’ Mignon at age 18, on December 4, 1943, when most teenagers of the time were graduating high school. Munsel was a popular crossover artist, enjoying a fulfilling second career in musical comedy, along with television forays and Broadway road-show outings of Mame and Applause. Her final appearance with the Met was in Offenbach’s La Périchole on January 28, 1958. In addition to her stage appearances, Munsel also enjoyed a fulfilling nightclub career singing show tunes. Peters (real name Peterman), the youngest of the three, debuted at the Met on November 17, 1950, as a substitute Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. She was two years older than Munsel at her debut. In all, Peters’ career at the Met lasted a total 34 seasons, with her final performance as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto occurring on April 12, 1985. It was an early Rigoletto performance with a handsome young baritone named Robert Merrill that caught Peters’ eye as well her ear. They were married in 1952, but the union did not last: they realized they were much too young at the time. “I think I fell in love with his voice,” she later recalled, “not with the man.” However, Peters and Merrill remained close friends for many years thereafter. One of the baritone’s frequent collaborators, tenor Jan Peerce, introduced Peters to voice coach William Herman, who was also Patrice Munsel’s teacher. Another colleague and close friend of Merrill’s, tenor Richard Tucker, who often played the Duke of Mantua to Peters’ Gilda, sang alongside the soprano in 1967 at the start of the Israeli Six-Day War.
Géori Boué (October 16, 1918 – January 5, 2017), born Georgette, was a French lyric soprano of wide-ranging roles during the pre- and postwar years, beginning with her debut at the Capitole de Toulouse as the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Boué became familiar to French and Western European audiences with her assumption of Gounod’s rarely heard Mireille, Massenet’s Manon, Charpentier’s Louise, Micaela in Carmen, Debussy’s Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, and copious others. She toured the major centers of Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, and Germany, often appearing in tandem with her husband, the French baritone Roger Bourdin, in such works as The Tales of Hoffmann (Antonia and Dr. Miracle), the aforementioned Pelléas (Mélisande and Golaud), Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (Tatyana and Onegin), and Gounod’s Faust (Marguérite and Valentin). She was particularly memorable in Offenbach’s operettas, among them La Belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein.
Roberta Knie (May 13, 1938 – March 16, 2017) was a dramatic soprano especially adept in the works of Wagner. Born in Oklahoma, Knie spent time in London and in Germany with famed tenor Max Lorenz. Her professional debut occurred in Germany in 1964 as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. She became a member of the Vienna State Opera in the early 1970s and made her Bayreuth debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1974. Her first stab at Isolde came a year later in a Wieland Wagner production of Tristan und Isolde at Ravenna. Plagued by recurring illnesses (viral pneumonia, a detached retina, colon cancer) and disagreements with producer-directors, Knie’s singing career ended in 1991. It was supplemented by a teaching career that began in earnest in 1996; and, in 2004, as an artist in residence in the Voice and Opera Department of Temple University. Her Met debut was in 1976 as Chrysothemis in Strauss’ Elektra. Knie bore a striking resemblance to Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, who shared similar Wagnerian repertory. Curiously, due to Knie’s frequent battles with director Patrice Chéreau during the run of Bayreuth’s centennial Ring production, she was replaced by Dame Gwyneth.
Carol Neblett (February 1, 1946 – November 23, 2017) was a shining star in the operatic firmament. With her stunning good looks and impressive stage deportment — not to mention her lithe figure — Neblett attracted immediate attention from the start. That she had a voice to match made her a much sought-after artist. Another early starter, Neblett made her professional bow in 1964 at age 18 in Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore (“Laud to the Nativity of the Lord”). Known for “her charming, often sensual portrayals of comic characters and dramatic heroines,” Carol was married to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn. One of her favorite roles was Tosca, which she sang over 400 times (in her estimation), including performances at the Chicago Lyric with Luciano Pavarotti. Neblett also appeared as Puccini’s other forthright heroine Minnie in La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden with Plácido Domingo (she later recorded the role with Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and conductor Zubin Mehta). Her New York City Opera debut came in 1969 as Musetta, a natural fit for her sparkling personality. That same year she took on the challenge of both Margherita and Elena (Helen of Troy) in Tito Capobianco’s production of Mefistofele, with Norman Treigle as the Devil. Neblett also took part in a revival of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea (1973), the title role in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1973), and the Frank Corsaro staging of an overlooked masterwork, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), with tenor John Alexander. She went on to record the role of Marietta/Marie in that opera for RCA Victor with René Kollo. But her biggest claim to fame was a production of Massenet’s Thais in New Orleans, wherein she appeared in the buff. Her Met Opera career was launched in 1979 with the role of Senta in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s disastrous The Flying Dutchman production. Recovering from that debacle, Neblett spent ten seasons at the Met, singing Musetta, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Alice Ford in Falstaff, and, of course, Tosca. A bout with alcoholism in the 1990s led to major career challenges, which she managed to overcome by taking up teaching at Chapman University in Southern California.
Nicolai Gedda (July 11, 1925 – January 8, 2017). Not only did Gedda have a long, outstanding stage and recording career, but he was also long-lived in number of years. Born Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda (pronounced “Yedda”) in Sweden to dirt poor parents, the young Gedda was raised by his father’s sister and her Russian husband. It was from his step-father that he gained fluency in several foreign languages, along with a healthy respect for music from all genres. While working as a bank teller, one of Gedda’s customers recommended a voice teacher to improve his chances at a musical career. This led to a brief period of study and his formal debut in 1952 as Chapelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, a part that boasted a high D at his entrance. Gedda’s incredible facility with high notes, in addition to his language ability, opened the doors to a successful career in lyric and bel canto roles. Mozart was on the menu for several seasons, including the roles of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Tamino in The Magic Flute. EMI impresario Walter Legge and his wife, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, heard the versatile singer at the Royal Opera of Stockholm, and in due course a long-term contract was signed. Subsequently, Gedda became an exclusive EMI/Angel Records artist for the bulk of his career. This included a well received recording of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (as the Pretender Dmitri), alongside Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. A steady diet of opera, operetta, and light opera roles followed, many with Schwarzkopf as his leading lady and conducted by a who’s who of legendary maestros, i.e. Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kunz, Otto Ackermann, Thomas Beecham, Lovro von Matačić, Otto Klemperer, Carlo Maria Giulini, André Cluytens, Josef Krips, and others. Before the days of the Three Tenors, Gedda was the most recorded male classical-vocal artist to have released opera LPs. His Met debut occurred on November 1, 1957 in Gounod’s Faust, a role he twice recorded. For all intents and purposes, the Met became his home base, but he allowed himself sufficient leeway to appear all over Europe. Some of his many roles included the aforementioned Don Ottavio, the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, Don José in Carmen, Des Grieux in Manon, Roméo, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Gherman in The Queen of Spades, Danilo in Lehár’s The Merry Widow, and Anatol in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in which he was praised for his exceptionally fine English enunciation. Although he had a tendency to sharpness above the staff, Gedda was an extremely reliable artist who always delivered the goods. In his Opera News obit, Peter G. Davis wrote that while “Gedda never generated the hysterical fan response of, say, Franco Corelli … few left his finely nuanced, vocally secure, emotionally generous performances feeling cheated.”
Johan Botha (August 19, 1965 – September 8, 2016) was sadly cut down in the prime of his life by cancer. The South African tenor was known for his “gloriously large voice and physique,” according to The Telegraph. Indeed, that over-sized frame was both a hindrance and a help to his career as a heroic tenor. Luckily for fans, the barrel-chested Botha was one of the few modern interpreters of Wagner who could get through a full evening’s worth of Walther von Stolzing’s “Morning Song” or Tannhäuser’s grueling third-act “Rome Narrative” without running out of fuel. Impressive as those accomplishments were, incredibly Botha began his singing career as a bass-baritone! He grew up in a farming community not far from Johannesburg. During his military service (1983-85), Botha was urged to join the choir. It was there that his singing talents were brought to light, although he could hit those high notes from early youth. To ease the tension of military life, he took up percussion and the guitar as a member of the military jazz band. Around 1986 or 1987, his voice changed as he “started moving up into a higher register.” His professional debut came in 1989 in Johannesburg singing Max in a production of Der Freischütz. Heard by Norbert Balatsch, the chorus master for the Bayreuth Festival, he was engaged as part of the chorus. A few seasons later, in 1995, he appeared at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, singing Pinkerton in Robert Wilson’s controversial production of Madama Butterfly. Botha then took up residency in Vienna where, in 2003, he was made a Kammersänger by the Vienna State Opera. His Met debut took place in 1997 as Canio in Pagliacci. He would go on to sing more than 80 performances of 10 roles in over 20 years with the company. Among his assignments were Radamès in Aida, Otello, Calàf in Turandot, Walther in Die Meistersinger (excellently done!), and a staggering interpretation of Tannhäuser, which to my mind was his finest achievement. Earlier, Botha took part in an unusual 2002 production of Puccini’s Turandot. Directed by David Pountney for the Vienna State Opera, this was the first performance of the newly revised third act composed by Luciano Berio. Mysterious and modern-sounding, this new ending did not convince listeners or critics of its viability. Despite the hoopla surrounding the event, Botha’s contribution was cleanly and assuredly delivered. The production has been preserved on DVD/Blu-ray Disc for the curious-minded among us. Botha’s size became a barrier for some, but with his characteristic good humor the tenor took the criticism in stride, fueled by a firm religious conviction that all would be right.
Barry Busse (August 18, 1946 – May 15, 2017) and Manfred Jung (July 9, 1940 – April 14, 2017) were near contemporaries who passed away within a month of each other. Their repertoires coincided from time to time, but Busse and Jung were basically vocal opposites. Born in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Busse received his BA in Music from Oberlin College, a Master’s in Music from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Master’s in Education from Walsh University. He started out as a baritone, winning the coveted George London Award, but switched to tenor in 1977, singing in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in Houston. He was often compared to Canadian powerhouse Jon Vickers, not only in looks but in voice and acting chops. Both Vickers and Busse sang the role of Britten’s Peter Grimes in that self-titled work, as well as Canio in Pagliacci, Wagner’s Parsifal, Siegmund in Die Walküre, and Don José in Carmen. Busse helped to extend the boundaries of the dramatic tenor repertoire by performing in numerous modern works, many of them world and/or American premieres, i.e. in Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco (1971), Conrad Susa’s Transformations (1973), Thea Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots (1980), and David Lang’s Modern Painters (1995) and Nosferatu. Manfred Jung was a German Heldentenor who performed in Wagner’s operas all over the world. Having started out in life as an electrician and lighting technician, Jung then studied music in Cologne where he went on to sing lyric tenor roles in Mozart operas. He made his Bayreuth Festival debut in 1967 singing the part of Arindal in Wagner’s Die Feen (“The Fairies”), the composer’s very first stage creation. From there, Jung put in guest appearances at the Salzburg Easter Festival under Herbert von Karajan and at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. He is perhaps best known to American audiences for having participated in the 1976 centennial production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth under Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau. The revival in 1980 (shown on German TV and broadcast to American audiences via Public Television), where Jung sang the hero Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are the ones most viewers will remember. Jung earned the distinction of having sung every one of Wagner’s tenor roles. His tone may have been a tad underpowered for these two massive works (in this author’s opinion), but his wondrous acting talent opposite Donald McIntyre’s world-weary Wanderer, Heinz Zednik’s crafty Mime, and Gwyneth Jones’ womanly Brünnhilde, was anything but mediocre. In 1981, he made both his Vienna State Opera and Metropolitan Opera debuts.
John Del Carlo (September 21, 1951 – November 2, 2016) and Enzo Dara (October 13, 1938 – August 25, 2017) specialized in the bel canto and opera buffa realm. A hometown San Francisco boy, Del Carlo was enrolled in the Merola Program where he learned his craft. He was a regular at the city’s War Memorial Opera House, where he sang many of his money roles — among them Dr. Bartolo in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love, Don Magnifico and Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and other comic parts. He made a specialty out of characters that included the Sacristan in Tosca, Benoit and Alcindoro in La Bohème, and Falstaff in Verdi’s eponymously titled opera. Certainly his towering 6’ 6” height lent stature to these overlooked assignments. He appeared all over Europe and the U.S, and even sang the leading Wagner roles for a time, until he found his true niche in comedy. He famously sang Kothner in Die Meistersinger for then-Met Opera music director James Levine. According to Del Carlo’s obituary in Opera News, “When he finished his audition, Levine said, ‘Bravo, John. Where have you been?’” He made his debut in the part on January 14, 1993 and enjoyed a 21-season career there. Enzo Dara’s career crisscrossed with that of Del Carlo’s: both artists sang pretty much the same buffo repertoire. The difference in his case was that Dara, older than his American colleague by 13 years, was born and bred in Mantua, which gave him an advantage in authentic Italian culture and pronunciation. He worked as a journalist for a time before switching careers. His professional debut came in 1960 as Colline in La Bohème. Dara’s gift for rapid-fire vocal patter and comic timing was leavened by his exceptionally clear diction and sterling musicianship. Indeed, Dara sang with the best of the lot, including Samuel Ramey, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Hermann Prey, Leo Nucci, Teresa Berganza, Alessandro Corbelli, and a host of others. Dara sang 41 performances at the Met of his signature Dr. Bartolo.
Frank Corsaro (December 22, 1924 – November 11, 2017). Along with director Tito Capobianco, conductor Julius Rudel, soprano Beverly Sills, and bass-baritone Norman Treigle, Corsaro was one of the most influential artists associated with the New York City Opera in its heyday. Born Francesco Andrea Corsaro in New York City (actually, on a boat in New York Harbor “that was bringing his immigrant parents from Argentina”), the future Actor’s Studio alumnus and Broadway and NYCO stage director graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, with a short stint in between at Immaculata High School in Manhattan. He attended City College and the Yale Drama School, where his production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit paved the way in 1947 for the Off-Broadway movement. From 1950, and between the years 1988 to 1995, Corsaro studied at and directed workshops at the Actor’s Studio, along with serving as its artistic director. He appeared on Broadway as an actor in the 1950s; he also started directing plays, many of which starred such luminaries as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters, and Bette Davis. It was Julius Rudel who gave him his City Opera break when Corsaro was asked to direct Floyd’s Susannah in 1958. His drive for authenticity, his inborn rapport with singers and performers, and ability to get to the heart of any opera or play, served him well throughout his years at the company. One of his adherents, baritone Richard Stilwell, remarked in Opera News that “Corsaro had an amazing combination of musical knowledge and theatrical expertise” that opened his eyes “to what opera could be — a special art form in which words, music and theatrical prowess contributed equally to create stirring drama.” That Corsaro did! I was privy to several of his insightful productions, the first of which was a 1975 Faust with Samuel Ramey as Méphistophélès, Kenneth Riegel as Faust, and Carol Bayard as Marguérite. Corsaro brought out Gounod’s dark humor (Faust’s laboratory, in eerie imitation of Leonardo Da Vinci, was littered with cadavers, one of which was Mephisto himself!), as well as the pervasiveness of evil in the everyday world (Act III began with a bone-chilling recreation of a Satanic Black Mass). Another was his modern take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, wherein Pinkerton’s naval buddies and their sweethearts were a boisterous presence at the teenage Cio-Cio-San’s wedding. Still another was his tradition-breaking La Traviata, where Alfredo (a very young Plácido Domingo) carried off the consumptive Violetta around the stage in his arms as they sang the third act duet, “Parigi o cara.” This was preceded in Act I by that notoriously long pause between the chorus’ departure and Violetta’s reflection before her aria, “Ah, fors’è lui,” beginning with the line “È strano.” How dare Corsaro interrupt the opera’s forward momentum with this ridiculous silence! But it worked! The performance I saw was a 1974 revival of the 1966 production that featured the fragile and waif-like Violetta of Patricia Brooks and the angry, menacing Giorgio Germont of Dominic Cossa, both veterans of the original. Corsaro’s only directorial misfire, in my recollection, was an ill-conceived Manon Lescaut done-in by over-ambition and miscasting. His other NYCO projects included Pelléas at Mélisande (a big hit with the hippies!), Leoš Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case and The Cunning Little Vixen, Bizet’s Carmen (which I also happened to catch), and Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Ronald Chase. In 1987, Corsaro joined the staff of the Juilliard School’s American Opera Center.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (October 16, 1962 – November 22, 2017). One of the truly great Verdi singers of his generation, Hvorostovsky (“Dima” to his friends and fellow associates) was born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia — a heavily industrialized area of Siberia. He battled alcoholism and gang participation in his youth. He left behind the squalor of his hometown for an international career in opera. Gifted with a smoldering stage presence, a masculine voice, and a shock of prematurely gray-turned-silver hair which he wore as a badge of honor, Dmitri was the epitome of class and style (no doubt his 6’ 4” frame had something to do with it). I heard his supple tones in many a Met performance, both live and on records, and on DVD/Blu-ray. With his super-human breath control, nobody could sing Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, in Verdi’s Don Carlo the way he could. Take, for example, Rodrigo’s death scene with its matchless legato and long-lined expressiveness. An equally fine elder Germont in La Traviata, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, and Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera, Hvorostovsky excelled in Russian roles: Tchaikovsky’s haughty title character in Eugene Onegin, his Met debut role (1995) as Yeletsky in the same composer’s The Queen of Spades (aka Pique Dame), and his heart-on-sleeve portrayal of the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, based on Tolstoy’s historical novel. His moving death scene, accompanied by the youthful Anna Netrebko as Natasha Rostova, did not leave a dry eye in the house. He was a surprise winner of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, barely beating out Welshman Bryn Terfel for the honor. Hvorostovsky’s passing of brain cancer was a tragic loss. It reminded me of two other giants of the baritone repertoire: American-born Leonard Warren, who died on stage at the Old Met during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; and the suave Italian master Ettore Bastianini, who died at 45 of throat cancer. It is fitting, then, that the Metropolitan Opera’s first broadcast of the 2017-2018 season of Verdi’s Requiem should be dedicated to the memory of this beloved artist.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
(Many thanks to Opera News, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Opera Wire, and other publications for providing background information and informative notes)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), Part Two
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
What adventures await Judah Ben-Hur! When last we left him, Judah had been condemned to a living death as a slave aboard a Roman warship. For three years he nursed his revenge, waiting for the day when he would mete out justice to former boyhood friend Messala, the man who falsely accused him of trying to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. What was it that kept Judah focused during those harsh times? Was it the life-giving water? Was it Christ’s tender touch? Was it Judah’s renewed faith in his fellow man? Hardly!
When the hardened Roman commander Quintus Arrius (steely-jawed Jack Hawkins) comes upon Judah for the first time, he decides to test his resolve. Flinging a flesh-ripping whip across Judah’s back, Arrius is impressed with his ability to restrain himself. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it,” he observes. He also notices the angry flame that courses through Judah’s veins: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
Hate is what will dominate Judah’s life for the remainder of the picture. However, it’s the degree to which he uses that hate that will allow him to overcome the challenges he still needs to face. Arrius perfectly summarizes Judah’s situation, and those of his fellow galley slaves, by imparting the following advice: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well … and live.”
Through a strange quirk of fate (or act of God, if you prefer), Judah Ben-Hur saves the Roman commander’s life. As a reward for his action, Arrius takes him to Rome to train as a charioteer. Then, over the years, he adopts Judah as a son and legal heir to his wealth and property. But the grateful Judah has other plans. He returns to Judea to search for his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), as well as fulfill his oath to seek retribution against the detestable Messala.
Most viewers and critics agree that the fabled chariot race is the high point of this epic story. Taking nothing away from one of the all-time most thrilling action sequences ever filmed (staged by second unit director Andrew Marton), the chariot race climaxes with Judah’s victory in the Circus Maximus and Messala’s brutal demise.
But prior to the tribune’s passing, Messala makes him aware that his mother and sister did not perish, as Judah had previously imagined. In fact, they are very much alive, if that’s what you call it. “Look for them,” Messala viciously blurts out as he lies dying, “in the Valley of the Lepers … if you can recognize them. It goes on, Judah … it goes on … The race … is not over.”
If Judah had not been radicalized before this point, he most certainly would be by now — and more than willing to take up arms against his Roman oppressors.
The Way of the Cross
From the spectacle of the Circus Maximus we move on to the public trial and personal turmoil of Christ at the Crucifixion. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) is washing his hands of the matter. We see Jesus in long shot, moving from the center of the film frame to the right.
Similarly, we cut to Judah entering, also from mid-center. He carries his sister Tirzah, who along with his mother have contracted leprosy after their time in prison. Roman soldiers on horseback mount the steps which will take them to the scene of the Crucifixion. Next, Jesus is perceived, again in long shot, as he carries his cross. Cut back to Judah at left with Esther (Haya Harareet), the woman he has fallen in love with, and Judah’s mother and sister.
In the next scene, they are all gathered near the steps that lead to a public square. The shadow of Christ’s cross appears against a stone wall — the wall that separates man from God; from the Creator of all things (as He was pictured at the start of the drama) and from those who have turned their backs on His only begotten son, the Savior of the world. Christ has taken on man’s sins in this moving episode.
There is a quick cut to Judah at center frame, his chiseled features facing to his right and to our left. Judah’s words cut to the bone: “I know this man!” he confides in a voice wracked with astonishment. The camera moves over to the three women, Tirzah at left on the lowest level of the steps, Miriam in the center position (both with faces covered by their wraps), and Esther at middle right, her own face a study in disbelief at what is being done to this humble carpenter before them. Her arms are placed on the stone steps in support of her weight. Esther is powerless to help the poor wretch who carries his own cross. Christ’s shadow momentarily falls on her face as he staggers by.
In the next instant, Christ stumbles (the first of several falls). The soldiers respond by whipping him into submission. Judah moves in to assist the fallen Jesus. Interestingly, the cross’s beam intersects the film’s frame; it looms larger than any of the women present, or Ben-Hur for that matter. The soldiers also traverse the frame, larger than life and just as threatening. At the soldiers’ crack of the whip, Tirzah cries out, “Easy on him!” But her cry gets no response. Jesus continues the long trek up the steps to his eventual death.
The camera pans to the other bystanders bearing witness to this painful display, Christ’s Via Crucis. Some of the onlookers express remorse and dismay; others mock the forsaken victim; still others can only watch, emotionless and uncomprehending as to the momentous events taking shape before them.
The camera movement continues, panning to the right, following the crowd as they move forward, ever forward. The camera then cuts to Christ’s footsteps. They are heavy and beleaguered by the burden of carrying that enormous wooden cross. The object’s heaviest section scrapes against the stone masonry as he slowly inches his way upward and onward. The music intones a mournful theme.
At that moment, Jesus stumbles anew. His left arm, bloodied and battered from the beating he received from the scornful Roman soldiers, prevents him from falling altogether. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Judah takes off his robe and charges Esther with watching over his family. He resolves to follow the crowd up the steps in pursuit of the figure, the man he claimed to “know,” but from where? Under what circumstances could he have met such a pitiable creature as this?
Judah pushes his way through the armed guard, his movements going from left to center, and from center to right — just as it was in the desert sequence earlier on (see the following link to my description of this scene: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-view-from-the-chair-walk-of-life-an-analysis-of-two-scenes-from-william-wylers-ben-hur-1959-scene-one-the-water-of-life/). Here, in the “Procession to Calvary” sequence, that doleful theme music (by composer Miklós Rózsa) becomes, in actuality, a minor-key inversion of the manly four-note “Ben-Hur” motif heard at the beginning of and throughout the film. It implies that Jesus and Judah’s situations have been reversed.
The women depart towards the center of the frame. They can no longer be of any assistance, nor can they seek assistance for that matter. Esther berates herself for dragging Tirzah and Miriam to witness such a tragedy. But Miriam is more consoling. “You haven’t failed,” she informs her. It’s not Esther’s fault that men continue to treat each other so cruelly. Why, look at Judah and Messala. Once they were bosom companions, as close as brothers, sharing an unbroken bond of fealty and love. Then, they turned on one another: Messala for needing Judah’s help in fingering the Jewish resistance leaders; and Judah for refusing to betray his own people. Their clash was over politics and religion, ideology over practicality.
The Center of Attention
We come to the center of the square. One observer shouts, with his hand raised mockingly in the air, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Between the crosses of the other two prisoners we can spot Judah, still mingling with the crowd, looking for an opportunity to come to this man’s aid, but why? What does Judah owe this miserable human being? He keeps moving forward, as Christ, who is at the extreme left of the screen, also does.
It’s at this point that Jesus’ burden begins to take a toll on his broken body. He stumbles badly, with the cross falling directly on top of him. He is on the ground, his arms splayed in a posture that will be replicated at the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging from this same cross. Judah is finally able to break through the crowd. He’s about to reach the fallen victim when a foot soldier sideswipes him back into the crowd. Judah crashes into a well (which resembles an ancient water trough).
Meanwhile, one of the soldiers coaxes a passerby — Simon the Cyrene — into carrying Jesus’ cross so that the procession can continue on its dolorous way. As Christ struggles to get back to his feet, Judah quickly snatches a ladle and, filling it with fresh water, tries to deliver its contents. They are both in the exact center of the screen: Christ positioned at center-left and Judah at center-right; a complete turnaround from their previous encounter where Judah was in Christ’s position on the ground and Christ came to his rescue from the right.
As Judah bends down to offer him a thirst-quenching drink, he suddenly remembers their former meeting. The expression on Judah’s face changes from compassion to utter shock and recognition. The music also recalls their initial encounter, with the Christ theme gently stirring on the soundtrack. How their situations have changed; how their circumstances over the years have conspired to reverse their fortunes. Just as Jesus is about to drink, a soldier interrupts their reunion (without the need for the phrase, “No water for him!”) by kicking the ladle from Judah’s outstretched arms, thus spilling the refreshment onto the street.
Throughout this continuous sequence, director William Wyler has positioned both Judah and Jesus in long view, that is, until the camera crouches down to eye level, just as the two men confront each other in close up. Intruding on the pair, the soldiers manhandle Judah out of their way. Both men stumble to the ground, the symbolism here being unmistakable: each has stooped so low in life — Judah, a prince of his people, turned a slave aboard a Roman galley, now restored to his former station; Jesus, a simple carpenter’s son, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah, now about to be crucified between two criminals.
From this personal abyss, there comes a reaffirmation. In Christ’s case, his death and glorious resurrection; in Judah’s, a reassessment of his life’s work, one dedicated to family and charity toward others. Deprived of the merest hint of sustenance (the screenplay ignores Christ’s injunction to his disciples at the Last Supper: that he would not eat or drink until his task was complete), Jesus marches wearily to his fate.
Similarly, Judah stands at the center of the storm. As he did in the earlier sequence, Judah rises to his full height at far left — the opposite of where Christ Jesus had stood upon quenching Judah’s thirst. In Judah’s right hand we see that he holds the ladle, emblematic of the one that revived him the last time the two men had met. Their positions are mirror images of where they once stood so many years before. Only here, Jesus does not look back, as Judah had done. Christ has left his past behind. He can only march solemnly ahead to a future he knows he must confront.
The sequence ends with the shadow of a Roman soldier cast across Judah’s backside. Two soldiers enter the scene, each on opposite sides of the frame, wearing flowing red capes (the blood of Christ on their shoulders?). Judah is obstructed from view, whereas Jesus is dressed all in white; he remains visible at the center, the image getting progressively smaller and smaller with each step, trudging incessantly to his end.
The next scene takes us to Calvary; a short while later, Christ is no more. A terrible rainstorm breaks out, but in a cave nearby a miracle has occurred: Tirzah and Miriam are cured of their leprosy. Esther is overjoyed. As rain begins to fall, we switch back to the cross where Christ’s limp body hangs. His blood flows down from the cross to a stream below. The stream then becomes a raging torrent, as Christ’s blood, mixed with the water and rain, washes man’s sins away.
In the final scene, Judah returns to his ancestral home. He confesses to an expectant Esther that Jesus’ last words were of forgiveness for mankind. Those same words, a comfort in our own hard times, took the sword of vengeance from his hand. A lifetime of rage and hatred has been replaced with absolution and understanding.
Judah is reunited with his newfound family (he marvels at their smoothened complexions). They embrace. The bonds of love and faith have been reaffirmed. In the end, the Christ theme blazes forth, blending with Judah’s theme as well as his and Esther’s love music.
A heavenly choir proclaims the “Alleluia,” as a portion of the “Creation of Adam” panel reappears. Only Adam’s hand and God’s life-giving touch are visible, a reaffirmation in kind of the bond that exists between man and his maker.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Three)
From the modal beauty and formality of “She’s Leaving Home,” to the purity and simplicity of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we come to Side Two of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
If anyone at the time of the album’s June 1967 release entertained such far-flung notions that the Fab Four had run out of inspiration, they were in for quite a jolt. It’s almost considered a cliché that critics and adherents alike held Sgt. Pepper up as a benchmark achievement in the pop-music field. True, the album had a considerable following among listeners and record buyers. In retrospect, many of these same folks looked at this release as not up to the standard set by the group’s earlier efforts, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Many also fell into the trap of reading way too much into its lyrics.
There may be some truth to these assertions. Be that as it may, once we get to the B Side, that illusory “drop in quality” disappears with the next items on the list: George Harrison’s mesmerizingly hypnotic, five-minute-and-three-second “Within You, Without You,” and the rollickingly jaunty “When I’m Sixty-Four” by Paul McCartney. These two numbers are as different from one another as, say, “Eleanor Rigby” was from “Yellow Submarine.” Yet, the words and music for both “Within You, Without You” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” helped sustain the image of the Beatles as modern-day pop purveyors working at their whimsical best.
A lot has been written about the droning, Indian-derived sonic textures for “Within You, Without You.” There’s a quantifiable, trance-inducing aspect to it, a mystical call-to-the-spirit-world ambiance unlike anything that had come before. Harrison, known to fans as the “quiet Beatle,” was speaking out and finally coming into his own as a songwriter. “One of George’s best songs,” John Lennon maintained in the Playboy Interviews. “One of my favorites, too. He’s clear in that song. His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent; he brought that sound together.”
Prior to this, George had tinkered with Indian music in his “Love You To” (also written as “Love You Too”) on Revolver, playing the exotic-sounding sitar on that cut, and on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from Rubber Soul. At the time of “Norwegian Wood,” George was far from a proficient sitar player. According to Lennon, reported in the Rolling Stone Interviews (1970), “it took some doing to work it in. The instrument was still unfamiliar to George, and John had thought up an accompaniment that challenged his new skill. Trying and failing repeatedly to get the version they wanted frustrated John, but Harrison kept at it, mastered the part, and it was dubbed in later.”
Inspired by his own studies into the music of India, in addition to Moroccan soundscapes, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones experimented with the sitar’s capacity to hold one’s rapt attention in their classic “Paint It Black,” recorded on March 8, 1966 and released as a 7-inch single two months later — over a year before Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” began to take shape.
With the exception of boyhood chum and former roadie Neil Aspinall, Harrison was the only Beatle present when he recorded the number. On it, he played the tamboura, along with Indian and other session musicians, who provided the dilruba, additional tamboura, the tabla, the swordmandel (a zither-like instrument, reputed to have been played by George as well), eight violins, and three cellos.
Producer George Martin worked closely with Harrison “on the scoring of it, using a string orchestra, and he brought some friends from the Indian Music Association to play special instruments. I was introduced to the dilruba, an Indian violin, in playing which a lot of sliding techniques are used. This meant that in scoring for that track I had to make the string players play very much like Indian musicians, bending the notes, and with slurs between one note and the next” (All You Need is Ears, 1979).
The origin for the piece came from a conversation George had with German-born artist and musician Klaus Voormann, the fellow responsible for the psychedelic cover art for Revolver and other albums. “Klaus had a harmonium in his house,” George recalled in The Beatles: A Celebration (1986), “which I hadn’t played before. I was doodling on it, playing to amuse myself, when ‘Within You, Without You’ started to come. The tune came initially, and then I got the first line [‘We were talking’]. It came out of what we’d been discussing that evening.”
We were talking about the space between us all
And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth
Then it’s far too late when they pass away
We were talking about the love we all could share
When we find it to try our best to hold it there with our love
With our love, we could save the world, if they only knew
Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make the change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you
That’s deep stuff, Georgie Boy! And he was the type to deliver it, too.
The previous fall, in September 1966, George and his wife Pattie had gone to India to study with Ravi Shankar, whom he met in June of that year. “The press had been trying to put me and him together since I used the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ” Harrison described in The Beatles Anthology. “They started thinking: ‘A photo opportunity — a Beatle with an Indian.’ So they kept trying to put us together, and I said ‘no,’ because I knew I’d meet him under the proper circumstances, which I did …. So in September, after touring, I went to India for about six weeks … Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises.”
“It was a fantastic time,” he went on to explain. “I would go out and look at temples and go shopping. We travelled all over and eventually went up to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat in the middle of the Himalayas. It was incredible. I’d wake up in the morning and a little Kashmiri fellow, Mr. Butt, would bring me tea and biscuits and I could hear Ravi in the next room, practicing … It was the first feeling I’d ever had of being liberated from being a Beatle or a number … I saw all kinds of groups of people, a lot of them chanting, and it was a mixture of unbelievable things, with the Maharajah coming through the crowd on the back of an elephant, with the dust rising. It gave me a great buzz.”
Consequently, we would expect to get a “great buzz” from listening to this seminal track, the only one on Sgt. Pepper written by the quiet Beatle. George expanded his contacts with Indian personalities, and his knowledge of their music and culture, when he and Pattie, along with Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, flew to New Delhi in February 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Age Before Beauty…
Following on the heels of “Within You, Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” gives the appearance at first glance of being an inoffensive pop confection with an entirely innocent tone and hurdy-gurdy backdrop to match. The quartet of Paul, John, George and Ringo are back, along with session musicians on bass clarinet and two normal-sounding clarinets (that “tooty” accompaniment was composed by producer George Martin).
By all reports, Paul wrote the tune when he was about fifteen or sixteen, and to different lyrics. He claimed that the later lyrics were in honor of his father’s sixty-fourth birthday. “So many of my things, like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and those, they’re tongue-in-cheek! But they get taken for real!” Paul told Playboy magazine in December 1986. “Paul says, ‘Will you love me when I’m sixty-four?’ But I say, ‘Will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?’ That’s the tongue-in-cheek bit.” Oh, right!
Seemingly innocuous at the time, today the words have taken on a darker, dour context, an unintentionally prophetic message about old age creeping up on people and overtaking them in the so-called prime of life:
When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine?
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
You’ll be older too
And if you say the word
I could stay with you
Will you want a divorce because I can’t (ahem) “perform” in bed as I used to? Could you stand my presence, now that I’m no longer handsome and svelte as I was in my youth? Hey, you’re getting older yourself! So the shoe can be on the other foot! To save money, we could shack up together! Good questions, all! But wait! There’s more:
I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
Here are my arguments, both pro and con, about the ravages of old age. Why, look at all the wonderful things we can do together, the narrator tells us. We can fix the lighting or knit ourselves some sweaters by that warm fireplace. How about taking a stroll in the park? Trimming the hedges, doing the wash, something, anything? Hey, please don’t abandon me! I’m still useful, even if my back aches like hell from pulling out those nasty weeds. And then, there are all those retirement perks:
Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck, and Dave
Oh, yeah, about those perks….
Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away
Now you’ve done it! You’ve locked me up in a damn nursing home! On the Isle of Wight, of all places! And you’ve thrown away the key! Thanks a lot! I’m here, all by myself, “wasting away,” in body and mind — waiting for you to call, to visit me, to bring our grandkids. But so far, nothing! Nada! Zilch!
As Mick Jagger would claim (in the July 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper”), “What a drag it is getting old.”
Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
The music’s whimsy stands in barbed contrast to the lyrics’ light-hearted sentiments. This modest ditty makes for a fine companion piece to the A Side’s “She’s Leaving Home,” about a girl who seemingly had everything she could want (according to her parents) — everything, that is, except love.
The next number, “Lovely Rita,” also written by the mop-topped Paul, is about a beautiful meter maid. What is a meter maid? In England, they’re called parking-meter attendants. In our country, a meter maid is a public functionary who works for the city or municipality. This individual is in charge of handing out tickets to car owners who park too long in the street. If the owners neglect to pay the parking fee, and the meter’s internal clock runs out (indicating the time the owner has left to move his car), a fine would be levied.
In McCartney’s view, it’s the same logic he used in conceiving “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “The idea of a parking-meter attendant’s being sexy was tongue-in-cheek at the time.” George Martin served once again as the arranger. He’s also credited with playing the honky-tonk piano. And three of the Beatles scrounged around Abbey Road Studio’s restrooms for the right consistency of toilet tissue in order to play the tissue paper and combs used in the song.
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Moving on to “Good Morning, Good Morning,” this was a one-hundred-percent John Lennon effort. “Effort” is an extraordinarily exaggerated claim when used in connection with John’s compositional acumen. “I often sit at the piano,” he told Beatles in Their Own Words, “working at songs, with the telly on low in the background. If I’m a bit low and not getting much done then the words on the telly come through. That’s when I heard ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’….. it was a cornflakes advertisement.”
A commercial for breakfast cereal as inspiration? Well, why not, but the barnyard noises and sound effects, to include a fox hunt, bleating sheep, a mooing cow, and a cock crowing? Overkill perhaps? No, not really. The chicken clucking at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” segues perfectly into the next to last number, a reprise (at one minute and twenty seconds) of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
No horns are present, as in the opening number. Instead, a Liverpudlian brass ensemble, known as Sound Incorporated, was employed for “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Here, an acoustic guitar and clanging piano lead directly into the album’s pièce de résistance, a highlight to end all highlights: the Beatles’ masterly “A Day in the Life.”
Entire chapters, if not whole treatises, have been devoted to this one song, so controversial and ground-breaking it became in its day and in our own time. Although “A Day in the Life” is the last number on the album, it was also one of the first to be recorded (after “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” in December 1966). Instead of being incorporated into Sgt. Pepper, the studio decided to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” separately, in February 1967, as the A and B sides of a single. After Christmas break, recording picked up in earnest on January 19 with “A Day in the Life,” and continued on until early April. Final overdubs and such lasted until May, just before its June 1 release date.
Because they were recorded early on in the process, “Penny Lane,” a nostalgic refrain based on the lads’ reminiscences of childhood in postwar Liverpool, and the spellbinding “Strawberry Fields,” the name of a Salvation Army home in the neighborhood where John grew up, set the path as to where Sgt. Pepper would tread — with “A Day in the Life” serving as the encore and summation of all that went on before.
News reports gleaned from actual headlines figure prominently in the construction of the initial song. The first story involved the death at age 21 of the Guinness heir, Tara Browne, known to the Beatles personally. “He died in London in a car crash,” John remarked in that 1980 Playboy interview. The other story was “about four thousand potholes in the streets of Backburn, Lancashire that needed to be filled. Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ that he’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use. I thought it was damn good piece of work.”
It sure was. Paul’s “little lick” served as the bridge between John’s two verses. Astonishingly, the numbers combined to form a unified whole. In The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record, Geoff Emerick was quoted as stating, “The need for a middle section became apparent. [Paul] offered some lyrics that he was intending for another song. After discussion, they were accepted, as long as the connecting part was very rhythmic. George Martin suggested the connecting passages have a definite length.”
George Martin added that “In order to keep time, we got [roadie and friend] Mal Evans to count each bar, and on the record you can still hear his voice as he stood by the piano counting ‘one, two, three, four ….’ For a joke, Mal set an alarm clock to go off at the end of twenty-four bars, and you can hear that too. We left it in because we couldn’t get it off!”
Emerick continued: “Martin then asked what should be used in those long connecting passages. McCartney answered that he wanted a symphony orchestra to ‘freak out’ during them. Martin disagreed, but McCartney persisted. They compromised on a smaller, forty-one piece orchestra.”
In another account, it was John Lennon who suggested the use of an orchestra. “Lennon’s only instruction to George Martin was that the sound must rise up to ‘a sound like the end of the world.’ ”
Very aptly put!
Some technical sleight-of-hand was utilized throughout the recording process. You can read about the equipment that was used, the tape splices and editing loops, the laborious electronic and echo effects surrounding John’s voice, the various feeds and feedback employed — all of them fascinating for sound engineers. But all that “tech talk” tends to bog the average reader down and can be stimulating only to those interested in the subject.
For us laypeople, the lyrics are what make this piece stand out from the rest: the way John, as he speaks the words he himself wrote, delivers them in his typically cutting, matter-of-fact manner; Paul, as he introduces his contribution into the framework, imparts a passing sense of relief from the gloominess of the main story line; then John, acting out the dream sequence implied in Paul’s narration, goes off into a wordless “Ah, ah, ah, ah,” his voice rising and falling as it goes up and down the scale, interrupted at length by the rising brass section; John picks up the thread about those potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire; he then makes that notorious crack about how we know how many holes (“assholes,” in many people’s opinion) it takes to fill the snooty Royal Albert Hall:
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
I saw a photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
But nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords
I saw a film today, oh boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
I’d love to turn you on….
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream
I read the news today, oh boy
4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I’d love to turn you on
The cacophonous crescendo (orchestrated, arranged and conducted by George Martin, with an assist from Paul McCartney) shatters the eardrums. The noise continues to mount, rising higher and higher in pitch, louder and louder in volume. It reaches an incredible din, until the final climactic masterstroke sounds: three pianos pounding at the same time; they’re played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans (in some versions, by Martin; in other accounts, by George Harrison) who strike the chords as loud as they can. Here’s where the facts become legend.
“The final bunched chords came from all four Beatles,” confirmed journalist and author Derek Taylor in It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, “and George Martin in the studio, playing three pianos. All of them hit the chord simultaneously, as hard as possible, with the engineer pushing the volume-input faders way down on the moment of impact. Then, as the noise gradually diminished, the faders were pushed slowly up to the top. It took forty-five seconds, and it was done three or four times, piling on a huge sound — one piano after another, all doing the same thing.”
John Lennon’s forty-five second “sound like the end of the world” idea brought to completion one of the most innovative and significant pieces of pop-music ever created by four (no, five … or maybe more) endlessly inventive artists known collectively as the Beatles.
(End of Part Three)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Six) Second Intermission
So Close, Yet So Far …
Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.
To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”
This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.
The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”
What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.
To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.
Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”) to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.
Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”
Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.
Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.
Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.
In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.
One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.
To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.
“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”
Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”
While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.
But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.
Isn’t opera grand?
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Music that Soothes the Soul
It was such a pleasure to have met and chatted with musician Ken Avis (albeit briefly) on Saturday, June 7, 2014, after the Jazz Samba Project Symposium. A former organizational development consultant with the World Bank Group, Ken is a sharp and knowledgeable music lover, especially of Brazil’s music. I congratulated him and his co-curator, Georgina Javor, for a most enjoyable and thoroughly professional presentation, which brought a variety of speakers together. Among them were teacher, lecturer, musician and journalist David R. Adler; teacher, composer and bassist Leonardo Lucini; editor, producer and NPR host Tom Cole; multi-Emmy Award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene; and professor and author Charles A. Perrone.
The symposium itself was a huge success, as was my talk the following Sunday afternoon with drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt (see the following link to my interview: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/). Buddy turned out to be a terrific interview subject: involved, alert and ready with a memorable line or two. It was incredible how he managed to recall events from fifty years back with such facility, and in precise detail. And having Jazz Samba’s original sound engineer Ed Greene on the stage and alongside him was icing on the bossa nova cake.
My only regret was that my wife and I missed the Sunday afternoon performance of Ken’s group Veronneau with German-born harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens. Regrettably, we had to rush back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to Dulles Airport. I also regret not having seen the world premiere of Ken Avis and Bret Primack’s documentary, Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World. I asked Ken afterwards if and when the documentary would be made public, either online or on his group’s Website. He was kind enough to send me the link to Primack’s YouTube channel where I could watch the film “in the raw.” Ken assured me it was chock full of fascinating tidbits that a history maven and pop-music buff such as myself would be thrilled to have at my disposal.
While we’re on the subject, Ken also provided me with a copy of a CD he recorded in 2012. Under the title Jazz Samba Project, it was his group’s homage to the milestone Jazz Samba album from 1962. My initial thought was that it was smooth sounding, suave and sophisticated, as only bossa nova was meant to be. The lilting rhythms and additional percussion effects were added virtues, while his wife Lynn’s easy-going vocals fit in beautifully with what I like to refer to as the “Astrud aesthetic” (named after Astrud Gilberto, the former wife of bossa nova pioneer, João Gilberto, who shot to stardom on the strength of her English-language rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema”).
I did have a few reservations with Lynn’s Portuguese pronunciation, though. Heck, even pop singer Lani Hall, one of two artists featured (the other being Janis Hansen) with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 on their many A&M albums, wasn’t all that perfect. Still, it did not detract from the generally relaxed vibes I got from the players. And the recording venue, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where the original Jazz Samba sessions took place, was heaven sent. While duplicating three of the selections from the original record (“È Luxo Só,” “One Note Samba,” and “Samba Triste”), Veronneau also covered the Bob Marley tune “Waiting in Vain,” Jorge Ben’s perennial “Más Que Nada,” Jobim-Mendonça-Gimbel’s “Meditation,” one of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes’ afro-sambas, “Samba Saravah,” the Joseph Kosma-Johnny Mercer standard “Autumn Leaves,” and lastly Jobim’s “Wave.”
Getting back to the bossa nova documentary, Ken mentioned to me that “it’s still a work in progress and won’t see the light of day formally until [he and Bret] are able to raise a bit more money for film festival showings, etc.” All the same, Ken urged me to take a gander at it. “I’m sure you will have seen many of the clips before,” he added, “but there’s a lot of new original interview material in there too. There are some things we will change but this is it as of today!”
Ken was absolutely spot-on regarding the documentary. There were clips (most of them from second-generation footage) that I had never seen before: a rare showing of composer-guitarist Luiz Bonfá with Perry Como performing “A Day in the Life of a Fool” (known in Brazil as “Manhã de Carnaval”), the persnickety João Gilberto in an extended take on “Desafinado,” glimpses of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd in concert, Elis Regina with Tom Jobim hamming it up on “Águas de março” (“Waters of March”), Vinicius and Tom in a rendition of “Felicidade,” and an interview with Charlie Byrd’s brother, Joe Byrd. In that one, Joe Byrd claimed, in his elegantly patrician Virginia accent, that brother Charlie called on the services of “two German drummers” — Philadelphia-born Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach — to man the rhythm section (see the link to the video: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjE3au2p4TXAhVBfiYKHVpiA2EQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvimeo.com%2F95835648&usg=AOvVaw0ijjbYF5DjAkC6YrGGGL7s ).
As for my talk with the “German drummer” William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (who is of Danish ancestry on his mother’s side), Ken had this to say: “I wish I could have caught the Sunday morning session — I heard from a couple of people who had been there, including the [Brazilian] drummer Vanderlei Pereira that it was interesting and entertaining. I [felt that] Buddy and his companions had a really good time at the festival and were delighted at the opportunity to be part of it, which for me is one of the best things we achieved.”
I asked Ken if he had ever heard of David Chesky and his audiophile label, Chesky Records. “I can recommend many of their CDs,” I wrote back, “especially the one called Club de Sol that highlighted composer-musician Chesky on piano with Brazilian percussionist Café, who my wife and I had met when we lived in New York (see the following link to my story, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/jazz-cant-resist-brazil/). “It’s a wonderful album of all original material, very bossa-nova tinged and jazz oriented — plus it swings, man, it swings! I guarantee you will love it if you haven’t heard it yet.
“I also have two of their earlier compilations (they double as sound checks, too), some of which featured singer Ana Caram, guitarist Badi Assad (she is part of an incredibly talented guitar-playing family that includes her two brothers, Sergio and Odair Assad), Livingston Taylor (James Taylor’s brother), Orquesta Nova, and a bunch of others. It’s all very eclectic stuff.”
My suggestion must have caught Ken’s ear. He wrote back to me after about a week: “When you mentioned Chesky I was aware of the label and a couple of days later I pulled out a compilation CD from them which I had bought years ago. It introduced me to [Bahian-born] Rosa Passos, who had a version of “Girl from Ipanema,” a Colombian singer Marta Gomez, who did a beautiful arrangement of “Cielito Lindo,” and included a bunch of other great tracks such as a bass and male vocal version of “Round Midnight.” If we were with a label, that’s the one I’d like to be with!”
With that said, I made up my mind to write to videographer and music journalist Bret Primack directly and introduce myself. Having put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite albums, I decided to pull out a couple of those Chesky CDs I had told Ken about. As I began to peruse the contents, lo and behold, I realized that Bret had written the liner notes himself. No wonder Ken knew about the label!
Call Me, On the Line
It was no surprise to me that Bret was a Brazilian music lover, as were David and his brother Norman Chesky. They owned (and founded) the Chesky Records label back in the late 1980s and continue to do so today. I quickly answered back: “I love their stuff! I have several excellent CDs of theirs including the two demo discs, which I still use on occasion to get the imaging right on my speakers.”
I felt an inspiration coming. Here is the gist of what I wrote to Bret: “I got your e-mail address from Ken Avis, who I met last weekend at the Strathmore after the Jazz Samba Symposium. Ken was kind enough to send me the video link to your film, Bossa Nova: The Music that Seduced the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My congratulations! I know he spoke with you about the making of, and genesis, of the film. I’d like to correspond with you about it, if you have some free time.
“The interesting thing is that I recommended several recordings to Ken of Brazilian music on the Chesky label. He told me he was familiar with the label. The CDs I suggested were a recital by [Brazilian jazz singer] Leny Andrade with pianist Fred Hersch — in particular, her powerful singing of the song “Wave,” which I think is a standout; and David’s Club de Sol. I would have added Herbie Mann’s Caminho de Casa (see the link to my article about this album: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/a-brazilian-at-heart-for-jazz-artist-herbie-mann-brazil-was-home-too/), but his name did not come up in our conversation.
“Coincidently, I pulled out Caminho de Casa and a Luiz Bonfá CD (also on Chesky) called Non-Stop to Brazil, both of which are favorites of mine. As I looked over the liner notes, I noticed that YOU wrote the notes! I knew, by the way you and Ken had discussed bossa nova in your film, that you must love or at least be familiar with Brazilian music. I had no idea you wrote the liner notes to my favorite works!” I also told Bret about my having met the percussionist Café.
“Please let me know if we can discuss your film. I even suggested to Ken a possible avenue for funding your project via the Audiovisual and Rouanet Laws in Brazil (I don’t know if they apply here, but you can most certainly give it a try). Ken told me he was going to check into them as well. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.”
After several false starts, I was able to speak to Bret. I had no idea the Chesky brothers were his cousins! We had a most satisfactory conversation, for which I thanked Ken. Bret hailed from the suburbs of New York. He started booking bands while still a teenager. Wherever he went, Bret met up with Brazilians who were passionate jazz and music lovers. After years in the city, Bret moved out West — to Tucson, Arizona, where he set up a jazz video outlet. He became known as the Jazz Video Guy. Some of his YouTube videos include “Miles Davis, the Picasso of Jazz,” and a series about the life and work of saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In our talk, Bret hinted that in order to complete the Bossa Nova film project he would need access to better archival footage as well as additional funding sources. Perhaps a trip to Brazil would be in order.
What really got my attention was that Ken mentioned using the unexplored avenue of the theater, by way of a play about the coming of bossa nova to the U.S. (specifically, the Washington, D.C. area). I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss, via our e-mail correspondence, a ready-made theater piece that many authorities consider to be the first (and, to date, only) bossa nova musical. That would be Pobre Menina Rica or “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a 1964 play (in the form of a cabaret piece) with lyrics and text by none other than Vinicius de Moraes, and songs by Carlos Lyra, a still-living icon of the bossa nova era.
I told Ken that I had a CD of the music, as well as the original text (in both Portuguese and English) in my possession. “You can read about the musical in Ruy Castro’s book Chega de Saudade, translated under the title Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World” — a not inconsequential resemblance to Primack and Avis’ film title.
Suffice it to say that the plot line and music for Pobre Menina Rica are definitely of its time. The story is of the “poor-boy-meets-rich-girl” variety, result: love at first sight, the sort of innocent, innocuous fling that prevailed in the mid-1960s. The best examples I could think of were those Frankie Avalon-Annette Funnicello “beach blanket bingo” flicks from the same period. It may not have been what Ken was looking for, but it did touch on themes related to class differences (one of the main characters is a crippled Afro-Brazilian slum dweller, highly reminiscent of Porgy from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). Nara Leão and Elis Regina were originally pegged to star in the show when it premiered. In fact, Lyra wrote the musical with Nara in mind: she’s the titular “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which as we know was the title of a Noël Coward song.
I offered to send Ken the text to read over. “You can probably download some of the songs online as well. If this perks your interest, I can even reach out to my friends in Brazil, Claudio Botelho and Charles Moëller (of Moëller-Botelho) who I have written about extensively on my blog.” For years, Carlos Lyra had been dying for someone to bring his play either to Broadway or to North American theaters in some capacity. It was another way of approaching Ken’s idea, but from a different angle, outside of writing something from scratch (which is more difficult).
However, Ken decided to give the project his own spin, the result of which was an original play called Bossa Fever! — When Samba met Jazz in 1960s Washington DC, with music by his band Veronneau. The world premiere took place in 2015 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in D.C., as part of the INTERSECTIONS 2015 Festival (here’s the YouTube link to the show: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjg06GilYTXAhVFWCYKHXQjCRwQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXadG42P5DuA&usg=AOvVaw13PclTp0Xgyoy_XEBq2EFk).
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes