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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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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 it—suggested 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.


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