The Philly Pops with Peter Nero: A Concert of Bernstein, Rodgers, and Webber
The Philadelphia Pops with Peter Nero
The Best of Bernstein and the Riches of Rodgersplus Andrew Lloyd Webber
The Mann Center
July 22, 2009
Should newer readers question why a concert of this kind is being reviewed on a "hard-core" jazz website, the simplest answer is because of the inseparable historical relationship between two indigenous art forms American popular song and jazz. Nowhere is that connection more inescapable than in the influence of Broadway musicals on jazz, and this concert was an opportunity to explore this symbiotic relationship.
There are two substantial connections between the musical theater and improvised jazz. One is the "Great American Songbook" and its inclusion of many of the Broadway show tunes that make up the bread and butter for jazz players. The other overlap lies in the modes and influences that are shared in common by both enterprises in terms of mood, story, melody, harmony, and rhythm. In different ways, the musical scores of Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers profoundly exemplify these connecting links. These mutual interactions are what prompted this reviewer to review the Philly Pops performance of The Best of Bernstein and the Riches of Rodgers - plus Andrew Lloyd Webber at Philadelphia's in-the-park music shed, the Mann Center on July 22, 2009. It is hard to conceive of anyone who can negotiate the crossover between show music and jazz better than Pops Director, Peter Nero, whose multitude of recordings and performances as pianist, conductor, composer, and arranger are rich with references to both jazz and Broadway.
The opening orchestral piece, the West Side Story Overture, immediately made the jazz influence apparent. Ahead of his time, and never surpassed, Leonard Bernstein possessed a remarkable grasp of almost every type of music, from Broadway to classical to romantic and, unlike most of his peers in the symphonic world, jazz. (It is no accident that Michael Tilson Thomas, a conductor who negotiates this crossover well - one thinks of his not-less-than astonishing concert recording featuring Sarah Vaughan (Gershwin Alive, Columbia 1982) - was mentored by Bernstein; and Maurice Peress, who superbly arranged the Overture for full orchestra, was at one point Bernstein's assistant conductor. The present reviewer remembers Peress as an outstanding trumpet player in his early days, and he has served for many years as an exceptional conductor.) Basically, the West Side Story Overture is a sophisticated elaboration of Latin jazz, including the sonorities, instrumentation, and syncopated rhythms of that genre and which anticipated the explosion of Latin jazz in the past two decades. The Philly Pops rendered what is a musical suite of the highest order with exceptional artfulness. One of their strengths is their ability to play jazz in a symphonic format, outshining other orchestras in this respect.
The singers Christiane Noll and Doug LeBreque then made their entrance with "Tonight" and "Somewhere" from West Side Story. These are two of the finest singers in the business, with beautiful, well- honed soprano and tenor voices respectively, strong interpretive capacities, and a "lightness of being" and use of dramatic gestures that captivated the audience.
The musical Candide troubled Bernstein because of its lack of financial success in its Broadway opening (the engaging idea to adapt the Voltaire play was suggested to him by author Lillian Hellman), but it has become a "keeper" in the musical theater, especially because of the way it achieves an operatic discipline (undoubtedly inspirational to Andrew Lloyd Webber) while being hugely entertaining and comedic at the same time.
Bernstein, along with Gunther Schuller, was a proponent of jazz as "American Classical Music," and took that rubric quite seriously. It is doubtless on account of them, as well as Duke Ellington, that the more serious side of jazz composition emerged, although jazz has always incorporated elements of the great composers. In this concert, the Candide Overture was played with the panache of a fine operatic orchestra and was followed by a hilarious rendition by Noll of "Glitter and Be Gay," which nevertheless revealed the influence of Samuel Barber's operatic masterpiece Knoxville: Summer of 1915 on Bernstein. The humor consisted of Noll fecklessly pulling out necklaces and other jewelry from her low-cut dress to dramatize the character's absurd ignorance, which is a theme of the Voltaire play
Orchestral dances from Bernstein's On the Town, namely "Lonely Town" and "Times Square," further illustrated his mastery of jazz syncopation and his ability to organize it in ways that met the requirements of his choreographer, Jerome Robbins. One easily forgets that jazz during the swing era provided the dance music of that time. (Hint to jaded musicians: try linking your creative work to familiar if unlikely venues.)
Attention then turned to the music of the great Richard Rodgers, who collaborated with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein to create a slew of memorable hit musicals for the Broadway stage. The vocalists variously sang "I Enjoy Being a Girl" from Flower Drum Song, "Where or When" from Babes in Arms, and "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma. It became clear how much more Rodgers' collaboration with Hart apparently touched the jazz world than did his work with Hammerstein. This is true because lyricist Hart had the sound of the blues in his "heart," while Hammerstein was more in touch with the plain folk and plainsongs of the "heart"-land so to speak.
Rodgers/Hart, like Cole Porter and George Gershwin, wrote songs that coalesced so well with jazz, especially as jazz moved from the big band to small combo format in the '40s and '50s. Hammerstein, on the other hand, spoke more to the dreams and daily lives of middle Americans as they emerged from the Great Depression and two World Wars into an era of relative peace prior to Vietnam, which shook up America and its music in profound ways. And yet Rodgers near exclusive reliance on the scale would influence the modal explorations of John Coltrane (My Favorite Things, Atlantic, 1960). That Rodgers could work equally well with Hart and with Hammerstein illustrates his rich melodic capacity to realize whatever "story" was put in front of him.
A medley"Symphonic Portrait of Richard Rodgers," probably arranged by Nero, who, however, made no claim to itsuggested how much the Rodgers and Hart collaboration has meant to jazz. Among the pieces represented in this fast-moving collage were "You Took Advantage of Me," "Spring is Here," "My Funny Valentine," "Blue Moon," and the delightfully mordant "Everything I've Got Belongs to You," all of which have been in the repertoire of almost every jazz vocalist and many instrumentalists since that time. To that end, the jazz world owes a great debt to Ella Fitzgerald for her marvelous Songbook recordings for Normal Granz at Verve as well as the Sinatra/Riddle triumphs at Capitol Records.
Following the intermission, more Rodgers was to be heard. "Shall We Dance" from The King and I was sung amicably by Noll and LeBreque. It was followed by Rodgers' score, Victory at Sea from the soundtrack of the legendary TV documentary, The War in the Pacific. I was struck by the resemblance between Rodgers' evocation of the sea and that of Debussy's La Mer. The Pops orchestra performed it with symphonic polish. This superb composition, in which changes of mood are powerfully articulated by changes in musical motifs and styles, makes one wonder why Rodgers did not pursue symphonic composing more frequently, his only other well-known attempt being Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. In this respect, Bernstein far outdid Rodgers, and it is a difference that also reveals itself in the sophistication of Bernstein's show music.
Suddenly, as if from the upper reaches of the proscenium, there came the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is a distinctly "postmodern" composer by comparison with either Bernstein or Rogers. His music came across as a postrcript not so much connected with the latter as it was a nod to his multitude of fans. Nevertheless, the contrast between Webber and Bernstein/Rodgers was interesting and well-rendered by Noll and LeBreque. The Argentinian dictator's wife, Evita and the strange figure of The Phantom of the Opera, a ghostly, heartbroken soul emerging from the stage rafters who falls in love with the daughter of a famous musician of the Paris Opera, contrast sharply with the "average Americans" who populate Rodgers' musicals after Hart and the troubled or neurotic individuals in Bernstein's. One doesn't hear Webber's songs played anywhere as frequently by jazz musicians and singers, but should the songs endure, the day may be coming when an adventurous jazz artist will give it a try. The beauty of the jazz idiom is that it can take almost any motif and transform it into something it can use.
The program concluded with an encore of "You'll Never Walk Alone," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. This lent inspirational and spiritual notes to what was essentially a musical program reflecting on how three very dedicated and gifted composers could write music for popular consumption. And the test of time suggests that they did very well! If one can learn anything from this thoughtfully conceived and executed concert by Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, it is that the distinctions between classical, jazz, and popular music melt away in the hands of the best composers and performers.
West Side Story Overture (arr. Maurice Peress)
Balcony Scene: "Tonight" from West Side Story sung by Christiane Noll and Doug LeBreque
"Somewhere" from West Side Story sung by Christiane Noll and Doug LeBreque
"Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide sung by Christiane Noll
On the Town: Dances: "Lonely Town" and "Times Square"
"I Enjoy Being a Girl" from Flower Drum Song sung by Christiane Noll
"Where or When"from Babes in Arms sung by Christiane Noll
"People Will Say We're in Love" fromOklahoma sung by Christiane Noll and Doug LeBReque
Rodgers: Medley: "Symphonic Portrait of Richard Rodgers"
"Shall We Dance" from The King and I sung by Christiane Noll and Doug LeBreque
Victory at Sea
Andrew Lloyd Webber:
"Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from Evita sung by Christiane Noll
"Phantom" from Phantom of the Opera sung by Christiane Noll and Doug LeBreque
"Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera sung by Christiane Noll and Doug Le Breque
Rodgers: "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel
Philly Pops archives, with publicity shots of Noll and LeBreque by permission.