Thursday, February 28, 2013

Those MGM Musicals Really Are Glorious

The Symphonic Pops Consortium created concert Those Glorious MGM Musicals will always hold a very special place in my heart.  Ten seasons ago it was performed in Ottawa by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, conducted by guest maestro Jack Everly.  Having an affinity for musicals, and being a student always looking for a cheap night out, I convinced three of my friends it would be fun and we headed downtown.  For the first time I was attending a symphony concert and while the write up sounded entertaining I wasn't sure what to expect. 

Needless to say my worries were completely unfounded and I loved it.  It was the start of my affection for Pops concerts, the sound of a symphony orchestra, the live music experience, and the knowledge imparted in such a charismatic way by the Maestro who, several years later, would accept the post of Principal Pops Conductor.  I left that evening with the goal of seeing all the musicals that had been featured in the show.  It took about five years before I had the time to start tracking them down, and I almost accomplished the goal.  The early operettas I haven't found in their entirety, although youtube has helped with relevant clips.  The movie search took me places I hadn't expected, mostly into the world of autobiographies and behind the scenes books.  Several books covered one of my favourite musicals, Singin' in the Rain, and the performers in it, but my interest has branched out into a greater appreciation for all classical and symphonic music.  Really what better result from a first concert experience could there be?

Anyhow, when I found out that I was going to be in the area when the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra was performing the same show, I couldn't resist.  Not exactly a bookend to how I got hooked on this genre, but a wonderful reminder of everything that I love about it. 

Nick Fitzer
The concert itself was great, there were things I didn't remember from the version I'd previously seen and variations from the printed program.  Perhaps Nick Fitzer wasn't feeling well since his solo pieces were unfortunately replaced or cut.

Nick Adams is an incredible talent.  His dancing in "Steppin' Out With My Baby" was high energy and his voice just as strong after a series of
Nick Adams
steps as when he first walked out.  A highlight of the whole show was his "Singin' in the Rain" number to close the evening.  The dance choreography mirrored that of Gene Kelly (minus the shrinking suit coat sleeves.  Aside: the suit he wore in the film was wool and the water caused it to shrink so noticably that you can see the sleeve length change) and Nick did a great job.  It would have been the icing on the cake to include a police man at the end coming up and tapping him on the shoulder adding yet another element of the movie.

Scott Hogsed
Other highlights were "The Atchinson, Topika, and the Santa Fe" from The Harvey Girls which started with Scott Hogsed and Nick Fitzer, then continued with Kathy Voytko in the Judy Garland role.  The vocal arrangement was done by Kay Thompson and won an Oscar for Best Original Song.  I believe Thompson was also the basis for the character of Phoebe Dinsmore, Lena Lamont's vocal coach, in Singin' in the Rain.  Dan'yelle Williamson's version of "Get Happy" dressed in the suit jacket style made famous by Judy Garland, and "Stormy Weather", a Lena Horne signature piece, were also very enjoyable.

Dan'yelle Williamson
Kathy Voytko

The ladies teamed up for a lovely and very special arrangement of "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" from Showboat.  The history of the musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II is really quite interesting.  After starting on Broadway, the first movie version was a silent film made in 1929 (technically based off the novel not the musical, so I suppose that partially justifies a silent film, although the musical had opened 2 years earlier).  Some of the original broadway cast ended up in the movie when several talking sequences were added.  More cast from the stage appeared in the second version from 1936, then in 1951 MGM got their hands on it for the lavish treatment with which they produced musicals.  Lena Horne wanted the role of Julie (and I think would have been a perfect fit), but it went to her friend Ava Gardner instead.  Obviously a disappointment, but the two ladies still remained friends.  The duet arrangement let the audience imagine what it might have been like had casting turned out differently.

Many more musicals were featured from The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis (two more Judy Garland classics) to The Band Wagon.  Speaking of Oz in his introduction to the piece conductor Everly read from a newspaper synopsis that described what we think of as a children's movie as "girl transported to psychedelic world, kills first woman seen, then teams up with three others to kill again".  When you put it like that, maybe not for children after all.  It likely would have had quite a different feel had studio head Louis B. Mayer gotten his choice of cast with Shirley Temple as Dorothy.

After the encore of "That's Entertainment" I got to thinking about all the people I've inflicted my love
of this stuff on since that first evening.  There have been a lot and I now have a few standing agreements about which concerts friends want to go to.  I'm glad that my excitment has rubbed off and I hope I've helped in some small way to keep the performance of this music alive.

In 1969 a portion of MGM was sold with props, costumes, and the backlot divvied up and also sold off.   The music library however was tragically sent to a landfill.  Many thanks to Jack Everly and the others who worked for two years to recreate the symphonic scores that were so carelessly tossed out, so that a concert of this music could exist.  I don't like to imagine what I'd have missed out on if I hadn't shown up to Southem Hall 10 years ago.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Love Will Keep Us Together

The Toronto Symphony's new Pops Conductor, Steven Reineke, introduced something new this season, a love themed concert, titled Love Will Keep Us Together that occurred a week after Valentine's Day.  I'm not sure how I feel about Valentine's concerts, there's no lack of good "love" music, but being single it can feel like a slap in the face from the world sometimes.  But I went with a friend and we just enjoyed the evening.  It will be interesting to see if this trend continues since the house was not full on the Wednesday evening I attended.

The opening piece "Love's Theme" by Barry White could have been a bit stronger, there was some muddling in the horns and it just didn't have the hook that gets you on the edge of your seat for the remainder of the evening.

Principal trumpet Andrew McCandless nailed a few wonderful solos throughout the evening.  The first was glorious and soaring in the "Cinema Paradiso Suite", then in "Almost Paradise" from Footloose he showed versatility with a much more jazzy sound.

Reineke, Eldred, Wolfe, and the TSO
Guest vocalists were Mike Eldred and Betsy Wolfe (making her TSO debut).  Mr. Eldred was okay, I enjoyed him best in "Sarah".  It's a piece from the musical The Civil War, and he just let the story and lyricism unfolded naturally.
Wolfe in one of many lovely evening gowns

Ms. Wolfe has a lovely voice that was well suited to the heartfelt and belt portions of "The Music That Makes Me Dance" from Funny Girl.  I don't recall hearing the piece before, but then can't say I know much from Funny Girl, but I quite liked it.

They joined forces for a humerous version of "Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun.  When they got to "anything you can buy, I can buy cheaper" and started throwing out numbers of "50 cents", "40 cents", "30 cents" etc.  Betsy side barred to the audience "the song's a bit outdated".  A true fact but it hasn't lost any of Irving Berlin's magic, even if the value of money has changed.

There were a few orchestra only pieces as well.  "Unchained Melody" made the list, and while melodically there isn't a lot of variation, they threw it around between the violins, winds, and celli which helped keep it interesting.  "Copacabana" was a good choice to open the second half with some energy.

The evening concluded with a lively encore of "Love Will Keep Us Together", complete with dancing vocalists and conductor while the orchestra played along left mostly to their own devices.  The audience didn't jump to their feet to join in, but there was a healthy applauce and light steps as people left the hall.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Beethoven Symphony 9

Conductor Matthew Halls
I'm unsure where I heard it, but regarding conductors it was said that "the score needs to be in their head, not their head in the score".  Never was that more clearly demonstrated then at the Toronto Symphony concert Wed. Feb. 13 Beethoven Symphony 9.  Guest conductor Matthew Halls, conducted the entire evening from memory.  What a memory to contain not only Beethoven's longest symphony but his "Coriolan Overture" and "Serenade in E Minor for String Orchestra" by Elgar as well.

I really enjoyed the "Coriolan Overture".  It opened with a decisive series of chords and ended, in a way I don't expect from Beethoven, by literally fading away.  The orchestra did a fantastic disappearing act at the end, bringing the sound level ever so gradually to nothing.

Elgar's "Serenade" was just beautiful with lovely playing from the string section.

The meat of the evening and the reason everyone was there had to be Beethoven's Ninth Symphony!  It was my first time hearing it live and just the way the stage was set up indicated something was going to be different.  Rather than relegating the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir to the seats in the choir loft, the orchestra was pushed to the front of the stage and the choir seated on risers behind them.
(Photo by John Terauds)
Obviously the part everyone knows is the "Ode to Joy" from the fourth movement, but I discovered there's so much more to the piece than that.  For example in the second movement there was a great melody that would start to develop and each time it reached a peak it would drop away into something else.  Not sure where he was going with that because I was anxious to hear it continue and to my ears it never did.  Even in the fourth movement the "Ode to Joy" theme is of course there, but it's expanded on and left then returned to.  All things I wasn't expecting.  It was truly an uplifting evening, and I hope to catch Beethoven 9 again sometime.  To top it all off, it was Mr. Halls first time conducting the Ninth Symphony.  No one ever would have guessed and I wonder how his approach may change as he conducts it in the future after such a successful first experience.  For a more detailed review check out the Toronto Star article.