Sunday, January 1, 2017

New York Philharmonic New Year’s Eve Concert (PBS, December 31, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the annual New York Philharmonic New Year’s Eve concert as telecast on PBS, and it turned out to be a great evening, considerably better than two of the more recent predecessors (a mediocre 2012 tribute to songwriter Marvin Hamlisch, who died just before it took place but was alive when the concert was planned — which led me to the rather sour opinion that if they were going to do a tribute to a living songwriter, it should have been Stephen Sondheim instead; and the truly awful one from last year, a so-called salute to Paris featuring a rewrite of Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” with a new narration by Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin that turned the original animals into various New York “arty” types and was so excruciatingly unfunny it was a tribute to the professionalism of narrator Nathan Lane that he got through the whole thing without puking on air). Oddly, the show was called “Some Enchanted Evenings” but neither that song nor anything else from South Pacific was performed; instead the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II shows that were represented were Carousel and their last, The Sound of Music. The show began with the “Four Dance Episodes” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo, a beautiful classical piece drawing on American folk songs but extending them into a lovely and moving musical structure (I remember that the day after I went to the press preview of Brokeback Mountain and was disappointed, among other things, by the desultory strings-and-percussion noodlings by composer Gustavo Santoallala instead of the broad, sweeping score the film deserved; when I played through a two-CD set of Copland’s own recordings of his big ballets, it occurred to me, “This is the sort of music Brokeback Mountain should have had”) with a beginning, middle and end. This was far more “serious” music than anything performed at last year’s concert except Ravel’s brief “Pavane for a Dead Princess” (and even that had been “improved” by bringing on a piano soloist to improvise, though at least it was done tastefully). Afterwards mezzo-soprano Joyce di Donato was brought on to sing two of Copland’s “Old American Folksong” settings, “The Gift to Be Simple” (the awesomely beautiful Shaker hymn he also used as the main theme of the ballet Appalachian Spring) and “I Bought Me a Cat” (which sounds silly — especially with the High Seriousness with which all too many opera singers approach a line like “My cat says fiddle-eye-fee” — but endearingly so). Then the male vocal soloist, a baritone named Paolo Schott, came on and did the “Soliloquy” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel — he did acceptably but no one who’s done this since has come close to John Raitt’s riveting original on the Broadway cast album from 1945 (to his credit, Schott used the original line about Billy Bigelow, Jr.’s putative wife, “a skinny-lipped virgin with blood like water,” instead of “a skinny little lady,” the Production Code-bowdlerized version sung by Gordon MacRae in the 1956 film version).

Afterwards outgoing New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert (so far the only holder of that position actually born in New York — Leonard Bernstein was American but from Boston) played the one piece of the evening not by a U.S. composer, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” (hardly at the level of Stokowski or Karajan but still good in its own right), which he said was a lead-in to songs from the Austrian-set The Sound of Music. His choices from The Sound of Music were unusual — not the big pieces everybody knows like the title song or “My Favorite Things,” but “I Have Confidence in Me” (which wasn’t in the original stage show; it was added for the famous 1965 film starring Julie Andrews, and since Hammerstein was dead by then Rodgers wrote words as well as music, though the line “I have confidence in confidence alone” shows he’d learned something from all the years he’d worked with Hammerstein, and with Lorenz Hart before him!) and the more familiar but still lesser “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (written for the Mother Superior of Maria von Trapp’s former convent to sing at the end, and whose best version was done by Eileen Farrell on the late-1980’s Telarc CD of the score featuring Federica von Stade as Maria). Then the show moved into four pieces from Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, with lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner (for some reason in Rodgers and Hammerstein the composer gets top billing, while in Lerner and Loewe — as in Gilbert and Sullivan — the writer does!). Loewe wasn’t American-born — he was born in Berlin in 1901, came to the U.S. in 1925, and lived to 1988 but worked only rarely (Lerner has talked about how difficult it was to get Loewe to do anything and a lot of projects he wanted him for, including On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, he had to shop to other composers — in that case, Burton Lane) — but in this story, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which elocution teacher Professor Henry Higgins insists he can pass off Cockney street flower-seller Eliza Doolittle as an heiress just by teaching her upper-class English, Loewe and Lerner created the most popular musical to that time (a record it held until Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats).

Alas, it wasn’t done justice to in the New York Philharmonic’s excerpts because of the stunning difference in quality between the two vocal soloists. Joyce di Donato is not only a technically excellent singer, she enunciates well and projects the music and texts with real emotional power. Schott is a good-voiced but sloppy singer who seems to think that the art of singing begins and ends with hitting the notes the score calls for and sustaining them for the required length. That’s where the art of singing begins, but it doesn’t end there! The four My Fair Lady excerpts were the instrumental “Embassy Waltz” (one of the interludes customarily placed during a voice-and-orchestra concert to give the singer[s] a chance to rest their voices), “I Could Have Danced All Night” (vividly sung by Joyce di Donato even if she didn’t quite come out from under the long shadow of Julie Andrews — again — who sang in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady and made two albums with the original cast), “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (sung by Schott with outrageous sloppiness — he even sang, “Like breathin’ out and breathin’ in,” and apparently no one bothered to tell him he was supposed to be playing an elocutionist!), and “The Rain in Spain” (which was presented out of score order, obviously to give the two soloists a shot at a duet). They continued duetting on “Anything You Can Do” from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (an O.K. choice but there are better songs from that score than that — I couldn’t help but wish they had let di Donato loose on the score’s beautiful ballad, “They Say It’s Wonderful”) and the opening “Carousel Waltz” from the Carousel score (a marvelous piece, though like just about every other conductor — including Richard Rodgers himself — Gilbert didn’t capture the manic energy of Alfred Newman’s performance for the 1956 Carousel film). Then Alan Gilbert announced the final piece of the evening, “Auld Lang Syne,” and asked the audience to sing along — only the show had reached the end of its 87-minute time slot and “Auld Lang Syne” was abruptly cut off for the closing credits just as it was getting underway. Despite the abrupt ending and Schott’s sloppy diction, however, this was an estimable concert, glorious in the opening Copland Rodeo and quite good singing from di Donato — a better male singer would have helped, but even so this was a nice tribute to American music, both “classical” and Broadway, at its best.