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The Philly Pops with Peter Nero: A Concert of Bernstein, Rodgers, and Webber

Victor L. Schermer By

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The Philadelphia Pops with Peter Nero
The Best of Bernstein and the Riches of Rodgers—plus Andrew Lloyd Webber
The Mann Center
Philadelphia, PA
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.
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