Friday, November 27, 2015

A "Choral" Christmas Carol 2

One of the overriding themes in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and the leading theme in Master Chorus Eastside’s A “Choral” Christmas Carol, is the struggle between darkness and light.  Early on it is darkness that dominates.  For example, Scrooge heats his office with a tiny coal fire that sheds little light or warmth.  He lives in “a gloomy suite of rooms” inside a fog shrouded building whose entryway is black and old and whose yard is draped in impenetrable shadow.  The only light we see is when the face of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, appears briefly in the door knocker.  But it is dismally lit “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.”

(I used to think this was a Dickensian joke until I discovered that decaying crayfish actually glow with eerie phosphorescence!)

And again when Scrooge’s bedroom fire leaps up in frightened recognition as Marley’s ghost proceeds upward from the dark cellar and into the room.  But it falls away again, for no light can be sustained in such a miserable presence.

But darkness begins to give way as the story progresses.  When the Ghost of Christmas Past appears, light flashes up in Scrooge’s bedroom; it comes from the “bright clear jet of light” that emanates from the Ghost’s head.

It carries an extinguisher cap for a hat, and at the end of our Stave I Scrooge struggles to cover the Ghost’s light with the extinguisher.  But even though he presses down with all his might the light is unquenchable; it streams from under it “in an unbroken flood upon the ground.”

Light grows even brighter with the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Scrooge lies on his bed, “the very core and center of a blaze of ruddy light,” which pours in upon him from the next room.  When he follows the light he finds that the room has been transformed!  Bright gleaming berries glisten everywhere, the leaves of holly, mistletoe and ivy reflect the light like mirrors, and a mighty blaze roars upon the decrepit hearth.  The huge jolly Ghost himself bears a glowing torch, from which he dispenses blessings, and he wears a holly wreath hung with shining icicles.

But then, with the final visitation, from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the darkness becomes overpowering.  The Phantom is draped and hooded in a deep black garment, as black as the surrounding night that conceals him, for the future—“will be” or “may be”?—is murky.

The scenes the Ghost leads him through are all blackness and death: of the body, of the soul, sometimes both.  Again the only light we see is the pale light that barely illuminates a dead body that, unbeknownst to Scrooge, is his own body, bereft and unwashed, his Christmas yet to come.  It is only when Scrooge confronts his bitter end that the light finally penetrates and he embraces it.  And pure natural light floods the tale!  He opens his window in response to the lusty peals of church bells and sees “Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”  And, as is only fitting, when Bob Cratchit arrives the day after Christmas, Scrooge tells him to stoke up the fires and buy another coal-scuttle.  No more darkness in that office!

There were many carols that cried out for insertion into the above scenes: Deck the Halls to accompany the Ghost of Christmas Present, Carol of the Bells when Scrooge hears the church bells on Christmas Day, the heartrending Coventry Carol for Tiny Tim’s death scene, to name just a few.  But there was only one carol that could embody the darkness versus light theme, the lovely old English Sussex Carol.  It’s fourth verse especially captures what I tried to create with this production.

From out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
“Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and forever more, Amen.”

This carol gleams like a golden thread throughout our Christmas drama; we sing it at the beginning and end of Stave I, it opens Stave II, we hum it in a minor key to usher in Tiny Tim’s death scene, and it closes Vaughan Williams’ beautiful Fantasia on Christmas Carols,  which we use as the finale of the production. Enjoy this arrangement by the Kings College Choir, and as you listen, know that the light wins out in this wonderful tale.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Choral Christmas Carol

I’ve taken an extended break from Master Chorus Eastside’s blog in order to replenish my creative juices.  Now that they are replenished I’m taking pen—er, computer—in hand because it’s MCE’s 25th-anniversary season, our season theme is “Where we’ve been, where we’re going,” and we’re kicking off the “Where we’ve been” side with a reprise of one of my favorite concerts from years past, A Choral Christmas Carol.

No, not exactly A Christmas Carol, although Charles Dickens’s tale is at the heart of the concept.

I got the idea many years ago when I saw an adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales put on by a chorus as part of their December concert.  They brought in an actor to read the poem, sprinkled Christmas carols throughout at appropriate moments, and sometimes even provided sound effects.  I was enchanted, and immediately thought of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and wondered if I could do something similar.  I’ve long been a Dickens fan and knew it well, but this would be something different and challenging.  It would require cutting the story down to make room for music, and yet keeping the thread of the tale intact.  So, over the months that followed, I pulled out my copy and marked it...and marked it...and marked it, excising parts, fitting pieces together, until I had the bare bones of the story in my hands.

And it was amazing how often different carols sprang to mind as I worked.  I seldom had to search for one.  It was as if the story cried out for carols to make it complete.  I jotted titles down in the margins, and slowly a concept began to form. This would be a combination of two art forms, choral concert and readers theater.  I have always loved readers theater because it leaves so much to the imagination.  There are no sets, just actors on stools reading their scripts, reacting to one another just as they would in a fully staged production.  It was up to my imagination to fill in the blanks.

And since I’m a choral conductor, choral music is one of my reasons for being!

For my A Choral Christmas Carol I would need a Narrator, who would read aloud as if to his family, and Scrooge of course.

They would need to be fine actors since they carried half of the show.  But smaller roles, such as the Cratchit family or the Ghosts, could be played by chorus members who would move in and out of the chorus and into the scenes as needed.  And the chorus itself would be an actor in the drama, commenting on, enhancing, expanding or shedding light on the story through the music.

And it worked!  We’ve performed this piece maybe three or four times over the years.  It is indeed “where we’ve been,” but it’s also “where we’re going”—stimulating the imagination, exploring, bringing joy through music and artistry. I’m really looking forward to doing so again with this production.  It’s really magical.  

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Great American Songbook: The Lyricists

I’ve been pondering the role of lyricists, the poets really, of the genre known as the great American songbook since my chorus has been preparing for our upcoming concert of the same name.  By and large the lyricists tend to be forgotten, swallowed up by the giant shadows of the composers who created the unforgettable melodies we know so well.  And yet, those songs wouldn’t exist without the words that also gave them life.  Some lyricists worked for multiple composers, some collaborated as part of semi-permanent duos.  But each brought his or her own signature to these great numbers.

Consider, for instance, Lorenz Hart, of Rodgers and Hart fame.

For more than twenty years, from 1919 into the 1940s, they were the toast of Broadway and Hollywood; at least until Richard Rodgers finally broke away in frustration from Hart to team up even more famously with Oscar Hammerstein.  Hart was known for his witty, playful lyrics and unexpected polysyllabic or internal rhymes.    Here is just one of several clever lines from The Lady is a Tramp:

I like the free, fresh wind in my hair.
Life without care,
I’m broke—it’s oke.

Which next time around morphs into:

I like the green grass under my shoes
What can I lose?
I’m flat!  That’s that!

But loneliness and wistfulness often lurked beneath the surface, and sometimes rose to the surface, for he apparently felt that he was too unattractive to be loved.  Here is the opening line from My Funny Valentine, a really lovely ballad sung in our concert by soprano soloist and long-time friend Mary Jo DuGaw:

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art.

Is this perhaps a self-portrait?
Here is Frank Sinatra giving a tender rendition.

Hart was supremely talented, but he was also an alcoholic, undependable, with a chaotic life.  Finally his friendship and partnership with Rodgers fell apart, and Rodgers forged an even more successful collaboration with Hammerstein.  And Hart fell out of sight and died in 1943 of pneumonia, exacerbated by drink and neglect.

Or consider Johnny Mercer, composer and lyricist who teamed with many different composers as a lyricist, creator of such classics as That Old Black Magic and Laura, both of which are on our program.

He was a Southerner, and his lyrics often grew out of the sounds of his boyhood home: colorful African American or rural white expressions, country dance music, the clickety-clack of  train wheels, the wind in the trees.  He excelled in creating misty, magical moments, such as the dream that is Laura, or the Black Magic that holds the lover spellbound.

Or consider Ira Gershwin, modest, unassuming, bookish brother of George who didn’t show much interest in writing until 1922 when he teamed up with George to create their first hit song, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.

Together they had a knack for creating fresh and novel ballads, songs of chivalry and romantic love.  Like Johnny Mercer he delighted in the sounds of the everyday world, but for him it was an urban world.  And like Lorenz Hart he liked playing with rhythmic timing of words, unusual word combinations, and new lyrical styles.  Their classic I Got Rhythm overflows with clean, clipped, rhythmic lyrics that sing easily and naturally and perfectly fit the music.

I got rhythm,
I got music,
I got my gal, who could ask for anything more.
I got daisies
In green pastures
I got my gal, who could ask for anything more.

Here is the incomparable Gene Kelly singing it in an absolutely charming presentation in An American in Paris.

But Ira’s style was his own, and the brothers worked perfectly together until George’s death in 1937.  Ira wrote no lyrics for three years afterwards, then went on to write for many big-name composers.  Somehow he has never quite achieved the recognition that he deserves.  In fact, all of these poets of song need to be heralded.  They contributed a vital element to the great American songbook.  For these songs wouldn’t be part of our culture without their words.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Harold Arlen: Tattoos and Rainbows

As I’ve looked into Harold Arlen’s life in preparation for Master Chorus Eastside’s upcoming Great American Songbook concert, I’ve been amazed at his versatility, grasp of styles, and depth of expressiveness. He was a full-fledged Tin Pan Alley composer, with all that entails: ballads, show business tunes, novelty numbers, film scores later on: think of the light-hearted It’s Only a Paper Moon, the wistful Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the wacky Lydia the Tattooed Lady.  More than most white composers, except maybe George Gershwin, he was conversant in jazz, blues, and music of the dance bands: think of the sultry Stormy Weather, the jazzy That Old Black Magic (which I examined in my last blog), and his first big hit, the tent-meeting-revivalist-styled Get Happy.

Pretty good for the shy son of a New York cantor!

He was born Hyman Arluck in February 1905, although like other popular Jewish composers of the time, such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, he changed his name as his career took off.  At seven he joined his synagogue choir, so little he had to stand on a chair so all could see him.  At nine he began piano lessons.  At sixteen he dropped out of high school and formed a small dance band, The Snappy Trio.  In his early twenties he joined a well-known eleven-man band called the Buffalodians, and his composing career began to blossom.  By the late 1920s he was attracting national attention with a string of hits.  In the mid-1930s he moved to Hollywood  and took up film scores.  There he created the music for The Wizard of Oz, including Judy Garland’s signature hit Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

And a song for the equally unforgettable Marx brothers comedy At the Circus, that signature Groucho tune, Lydia the Tattooed Lady.

Arlen once said, “I could never stay with one thing very long, in melody at least.”  And his output certainly bore that out.  These two movies were both released in the same year, 1939.  And no two numbers could be more unlike!

Let’s consider Over the Rainbow.  Here is Garland in her remarkably sweet movie rendition.

Arlen beautifully captures the arc of a rainbow in the leaps sprinkled throughout: “somewhere,” “way up high,” “there’s a land,” skies are blue.”  It’s as if Dorothy’s longing springs with the melody far above the drab Kansas plains and into the very heart of imagination. Which is astonishing, because there was no text to give Arlen inspiration.  The melody came to him one day as he was driving down Sunset Boulevard.  The words were added afterwards by lyricist Yip Harburg.  And then the fluttery mid-section seems to echo the wings of the bluebirds in the final verse, wings that promise to carry her far above the clouds and away from her troubles.

And now compare this to Groucho and crew singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady!

Like Over the Rainbow there’s a leap in Lydia, on “tattooed.”  Is it great artistry?  Maybe Arlen just couldn’t contain himself over the tattoos!  But that’s just about where the similarity ends.  The genius of this novelty number comes in a simplicity which is never simple-minded: the attractive, singable melody; a surprisingly sophisticated ABACA form which provides interest and variety (A= “Lydia, oh Lydia”; B= “She can give you a view”; C= “Come along and see Buffalo Bill,”each section separated by a “la la” interlude); the goofy lyrics which are never obscured by tune and harmony; and the waltzing rhythm, for who wouldn’t dance over a phenom like Lydia!  It’s 180 degrees from Over the Rainbow, and inspired zaniness!

Arlen died at age 81, not as well known as many of his contemporaries, maybe because he was shy to the end.  But he was a marvelously versatile composer, capable of expressing great tenderness, world-weariness, optimism, and humor in music dressed up in jazz, blues or ballads.  He deserves to be better known.  And since MCE is presenting these two numbers as choral arrangements, plus several other Arlen classics in The Great American Songbook, we’re doing our best to make that happen.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Harold Arlen: Magic!

Harold Arlen may be one of the best kept secrets of the American Songbook.

He composed some masterful songs, on a par with George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, and yet he is seldom mentioned in the same breath with them, much less on his own.  I’ve had a nodding acquaintance with him as the writer of the lovely Over the Rainbow, but even so I’ve hardly paid attention to him.  Here is a tiny glimpse of his output: Stormy Weather, all of the music for The Wizard of Oz, That Old Black Magic, Get Happy,  It’s Only a Paper Moon, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, One for My Baby (And One More for the Road), and hundreds more.  It’s only as Master Chorus Eastside has been preparing for our Great American Songbook concert, which includes some of his numbers, that he has come into focus for me as one of our most underrated Songbook composers.

Take his That Old Black Magic for example, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, who crafted the words in 1942, apparently with Judy Garland in mind.  I’ve heard it off and on over the years but haven’t really appreciated it until I began rehearsing an arrangement of it with the MCE Chamber Singers.

Here is Garland herself in a ballad-like 1942 recording.

The number suggests a love affair that is overpowering, magnetic, maybe even dangerous—after all, it is black magic!—and Arlen adroitly expresses that sense through some downright mesmerizing music.  The A section begins:

That old black magic has me in its spell,
that old black magic that you weave so well.
Those icy fingers up and down my spine,
that same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

Notice the magical words: “black magic,” “spell,” “weave,” “witchcraft.”  Notice the melodic note repeated over and over on “That old black magic its spell,” almost like a snake that  has immobilized its intended victim with its hypnotic gaze.  The harmony enhances that image; it remains an unchanging undercurrent until the word “weave,” and then stays with the new chord until the word “witchcraft,” where it begins a dissonant rising tension that finally resolves on the word “eyes.” Notice the narrow compass of the melody; the first phrase uses only two notes confined to the interval of a sixth, and the second phrase only adds two more notes.  It all creates a sense of capture, confinement, helplessness!

He returns to that hypnotic sense with, “That same old tingle that I feel inside,” but melody and harmony are now slightly agitated.  The agitation increases with a melody line that matches the rising elevator of the second phrase, strengthened by a brand new chord on the word “ride,” one foreign to the key of the piece.  And then melody and harmony gradually descend in “Down and down I go, round and round I go,” still with those repeated notes and harmonies, but now broken up in excitement by occasional passing notes.

The music comes suddenly to life in the B section, “I should stay away, but what can I do?” as if trying to break away from the spell: the melody frantically leaps here and there, repeated notes are mostly gone, harmonies change more rapidly.  Most interesting is the disturbance evident in “I’m aflame, aflame with such a burning desire...”: “aflame” is repeated (the first time words recur back-to-back), the melody plunges as if crashing in fire, then dizzyingly ascends on the word “desire” over a remarkable minor chord, perhaps a last gasp and somber recognition that escape is impossible.  For then it begins to settle back into the repeated notes of the spell and the kiss that puts out the fire.

The hypnosis reasserts itself in the return to the A section with “You’re the lover I have waited for,” but then something new happens: the melody soars skyward on “the mate that fate had me created for,” still with repeated notes but over harmony that suggests a new key, at least for a few measures.  And somehow this time, when lips meet and the singer is once again pulled downward into the spin of love over that last, long stretch of mesmerized notes, there is certainly acceptance, perhaps partnership, maybe even triumph.  For even though the melody clings to its  static statement, the harmonies move and change, as if they are in control!

Since we began rehearsing That Old Black Magic I find that it runs almost unceasingly in my head, over and over, as if...I were under a spell!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Sunday, January 25, 2015

That Swing Thing!

“What good is melody?
What good is music if it ain’t possessin’ something sweet?”

So, what is that sweet thing?

“It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music.
There’s something else that makes the tune complete.”

What is that something else?

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Thus wrote Duke Ellington and his manager/lyricist Irving Mills in 1931 when It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) first burst on the jazz scene.

It’s that swing thing!

Master Chorus Eastside is rehearsing a choral arrangement of this number for our Great American Songbook concert, and we are really enjoying that swing thing!  A Russian piano teacher once told me that Americans played jazz and jazz-based numbers differently than anyone else.  It’s in our blood, she said.  And that’s very evident in the verve that MCE is bringing to our concert preparation.

What is swing?  It’s a bit hard to define, but it’s a syncopated lilt that makes the listener want to dance.  Paired eighth notes are played unequally, driven by an underlying triplet feel, with the first eighth note as the longer of the two.  When I see the directive “swing” at the beginning of a piece, I know to upshift into triplets, let my inner dancer loose, enjoy the syncopation...and not be too rigid about the whole thing!

It was big band jazz that made swing wildly popular, and the swing era held sway in American dance halls and theaters from about 1935 until the end of World War II.  Big bands intertwined New Orleans Dixie Land and Kansas City jazz styles, along with Latin American dance impulses, into an irresistibly lilting dance beat.  And Duke Ellington was among the best of the best, both as a band leader and as a composer.

Among the many works, large and small, that he wrote, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) stands at the top, and helped spark the first stirrings of the swing phenomenon.  It may be the first number to use the word “swing” in its title, and it certainly helped to introduce the concept to the general public.  Ellington credited the title phrase as the doctrine of his former trumpeter, Bubber Miley, who died of tuberculosis the same year the song was birthed.

Here’s the famous 1932 recording by Ellington’s band.

Classical conductor and jazz historian Gunther Schuller called It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) “legendary,” and in 2008 it was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  Schuller also predicted that Duke Ellington would come to be recognized as one of the great masters of American music—of all styles!

Ellington was truly one of a kind, and it is MCE’s privilege to bring this number, as well as all of the songs in The Great American Songbook, to life. 

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Great American Songbook

Master Chorus Eastside has begun rehearsals for our upcoming March concert called The Great American Songbook, a catchall term that has become current in recent years.  I love the phrase, it has music in its rhythm and flow.  And my chorus LOVES the music; rehearsals are energetic, to say the least!  But what exactly is the great American songbook?  It brings to mind a songbook of course, and you can actually find a songbook by that title for sale at Amazon, with more than 100 standards from “the Golden Age of American song.”  But when was the golden age of American song?  And can it really be contained in a single book?

The phrase as it is used nowadays is, in a way, a songbook, or rather, songbooks, but it is more than that.  It is a genre, even a kind of metaphor of a time, a way of singing and composing and playing music, of style.  The time, by most definitions, was the 1920s through the 1950s, although some stretch it to include the parlor songs of the late 19th century.  Some commentators think that the rock music explosion that began in the 1960s killed off the genre, but others disagree and include later lyrical singers and composers such as Carole King and Billy Joel.

I wasn’t able to pin down when the phrase came into common usage.  Michael Feinstein, probably the most visible modern proponent of the Great American Songbook, says that no one knows when it first appeared, but it has become an increasingly common term in the last twenty or so years.

The phrase doesn’t occur in any of my American music history text or reference books, several with copyright dates from the very early 2000s.  But the composers and lyricists and performers are certainly written up there: Harold Arlen, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Tommy Dorsey, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Glenn Miller, Lena Horne, Cole Porter...

And the songs are there: Stormy Weather, Stardust, Georgia On My Mind, Embraceable You, Fascinating Rhythm, Singin’ in the Rain, You’re the Top, It Had to be You, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Satin Doll...

And the styles are described there: Tin Pan Alley composers and producers (see my blog of April 24, 2013), theater, popular and parlor songs, movie and radio music and, of course, jazz, lots of jazz, because jazz is a uniquely American creation that spawned music of harmonic complexity and melodic expressiveness closely married to sophisticated lyrics full of poetic word play and wit.

I would argue that the Great American Songbook is, or is becoming, the popular American equivalent of classical art songs.  Consider how many art songs came from stage productions—opera—or were written for intimate parlor entertainment as well as concert recitals: the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Debussy, Fauré, the vast array of Italian art songs by Carissimi, Monteverdi, Antonio Scarlatti, and many, many more.  Their subjects are mostly about love—love fulfilled, love spurned, unrequited love, love recovered from (sound familiar?)—in music of harmonic complexity and melodic expressiveness closely married to sophisticated lyrics full of poetic word play....

My New Harvard Dictionary of Music defines art song in part as “a song intended for the concert repertory, as distinct from a folk or popular song.  An art song traditionally is a setting of a text of high literary quality...[with] accompaniment specified by the composer...”

Certainly there are differences between this definition and the Great American Songbook genre.  But music never stays still, and definitions change over time.  Perhaps, fifty years from now, no one will notice the difference!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside