German Orchestra, Russian Conductor Do Justice to American Show Music in Berlin New Year’s Concert
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Until 1989, when Herbert von Karajan’s tenure came to an abrupt end in April just three months before his death that July, it would have been unthinkable for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to have a principal conductor who wasn’t German or Austrian. Throughout the 20th century three conductors — Artur Nikisch (who made a fascinating recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Berlin Philharmonic musicians in 1914), Wilhelm Furtwängler (who had the dodgy, to say the least, task of leading the orchestra through the Nazi years) and Karajan — had ruled the orchestra and dominated the German musical scene.
But times changed quite abruptly after Karajan left the orchestra in April 1989 and the planet three months later. His first replacement was Claudio Abbado, an Italian. When Abbado moved on he was replaced by the British Simon Rattle. Now the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal conductor is a Russian, Kirill Petrenko, and for his first major project with the orchestra — its New Year’s concerts at the end of 2019 — this Russian conductor chose to lead a German orchestra and a German vocal soloist, soprano Diana Damrau, in a program of music by American musical-comedy composers George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The only German represented on the program was Kurt Weill, who fled when the Nazis took over in 1933 — along with Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, he’d been named by Adolf Hitler as one of the three Jewish Germans he particularly didn’t like — and the music by Weill played at the New Year’s concert was a “symphonic nocturne” arranged by Robert Russell Bennett for one of Weill’s American musicals, Lady in the Dark.
My husband Charles and I watched a download of the 2019-2020 Berlin Philharmonic New Year’s concert last Sunday, January 26, right after we saw the 62nd annual Grammy Awards. The program began with the overture from George Gershwin’s musical Girl Crazy, which, like Broadway overtures usually do, extensively “plugged” the songs audiences would subsequently hear in the actual show. Premiered in 1930 at the Alvin Theatre in New York (named for its co-owners, Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley), Girl Crazy made stars of its female leads, Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers and introduced such memorable Gershwin songs as “I Got Rhythm” and “But Not for Me.” The biggest surprise of the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of the Girl Crazy overture was that they actually swung. Unlike a lot of other European orchestras who take on Gershwin, they didn’t take a leisurely amble through this music; they played it with the jazzy verve it demands.
Next Diana Damrau came on for two songs from the Broadway musical canon: “If I Loved You” from the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II show Carousel and “I Feel Pretty” from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classic West Side Story. I take care to mention the lyric writers because the producers of the telecast didn’t: they attributed the songs exclusively to Rodgers and Bernstein, respectively. This was especially annoying because “If I Loved You” (which for some reason Damrau insisted on singing “If I Love You” — present tense, not conditional) was an example of a musical trick Hammerstein invented to solve the problem of how you can have the two romantic leads sing a love duet when their characters have just met.
Hammerstein’s solution was something he called the “conditional love song,” in which the lovers-to-be would imagine themselves having the relationship they wouldn’t develop until later in the plot. His first “conditional love song” was “Make Believe,” written with Jerome Kern for the 1927 musical Show Boat (a production that so totally rewrote the ground rules for musicals that Broadway historians frequently divide the history of American musicals into two eras, “before Show Boat” and “after Show Boat”): “We could make believe I love you/We could make believe that you love me/Others find peace of mind in pretending/Couldn’t you, couldn’t I, couldn’t we?”
In his first show with Richard Rodgers, Oklahoma!, Hammerstein wrote another “conditional love song,” “People Will Say We’re in Love.” For their second show together, Carousel, they wrote “If I Loved You” and had another smash hit: “If I loved you/Words wouldn’t come in an easy way/If I loved you, off you would go in a mist of day.” In a song aimed more at the so-called “legit” (short for “legitimate”) style of Broadway singing — which emphasizes clear, pure tones and comes closer to opera than the loud, aggressive “belt” that’s the other main style of Broadway song (and at which Ethel Merman was the mistress) — Damrau phrased eloquently and sounded right.
I had qualms with some of her artistic choices — singing “If I love you” instead of “If I loved you,” and in her next song, “I Feel Pretty” from the Bernstein-Sondheim West Side Story, adopting an annoying attempt at a Puerto Rican accent because her character, Maria, is supposed to be Puerto Rican. I also missed the choral interjections in “I Feel Pretty” as performed in the show, but it was still O.K. and if other opera singers have sung musical songs more effectively (like the great Eileen Farrell in the 1950’s and 1960’s), there’ve been others who’ve done them worse.
The song from West Side Story was followed up with a long instrumental selection from the same show, the so-called “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” which were premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1960, three years after the musical itself was first produced. It’s unclear from the online source at LeonardBernstein.com (the full link is at https://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/73/symphonic-dances-from-west-side-story) whether Bernstein himself made this arrangement of the big songs from his famous musical, but he recorded it in Los Angeles in 1978 and it’s been recorded fairly often since. The classical CD sales site ArkivMusic.com lists 49 recordings (it also identifies Bernstein as the arranger), though some of them are duplicate issues of the same performance.
One performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Shaw, conductor, was coupled on an early Vox CD with Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture on Romeo and Juliet as a nod to the way Bernstein, Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents adapted Shakespeare’s play for the plot of West Side Story, changing the characters from feuding families in medieval Italy to warring street gangs in New York City. Petrenko’s performance on the Berlin New Year’s concert was a bit draggy in spots but especially moving in the slower, more lyrical parts of the score.
Alas, after the Symphonic Dances there was an odd glitch either in the download from which we were watching the concert or the home-burned DVD we were watching it from. Diana Damrau was supposed to have come out to sing the song “Foolish Heart” from Kurt Weill’s U.S. musical One Touch of Venus, after which we were supposed to get an extended “Symphonic Nocturne” from another of Weill’s American shows, Lady in the Dark. This orchestral piece, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett (a capable Broadway orchestrator who did similar symphonic digests of other shows, including George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate), was a bit misnamed because it alternated fast and slow songs and didn’t sound especially “nocturnal.”
About the only memorable songs from Lady in the Dark are the ballad “My Ship” and the raucous novelty “The Saga of Jenny,” and these were the highlights of Bennett’s allegedly nocturnal concoction. It would probably have been better if conductor Petrenko had represented this show by having Damrau sing those two songs — “My Ship” would have especially suited her voice — than by plowing through this medley from it which seemed to come alive only when he got to caress lovingly the long-lined melody of “My Ship.”
The glitching continued after Damrau returned to perform Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” from his musical A Little Night Music — based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 movie Smiles of a Summer Night. Ever since I first saw this entire show in a Cygnet Theatre production about a decade ago I’ve wished that the singers who do this song as a separate piece would add the beautiful reprise, which makes the piece less melancholy and more hopeful. Instead Damrau, like just about everyone else (including Sarah Vaughan, who brought wrenching emotion and power to her two versions, one with just piano and one with a full orchestra), just did the first part, but she phrased it eloquently even if not at Vaughan’s high level.
Alas, after “Send In the Clowns” the DVD bounced backwards to the middle of the same song, then jumped ahead and finally settled down to allow us to watch Damrau’s last piece of the evening, the classic Harold Arlen-E. Y. “Yip” Harburg song “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. I’ve heard this song in innumerable versions, many of them sung by the person who introduced it, Judy Garland. She had to trot it out in virtually all her live appearances until she got sick of it, and her 30 years’ worth of performances are a virtual testament to the wreckage of that prodigiously talented woman on the dark altars of alcohol and drugs, from the wide-eyed innocence with which she sang it in the movie and on her first record (with Victor Young’s orchestra on Decca) to the hard-bitten voice, worn down by the cares of the world and the burden of stardom but still rallying to project the song’s hopeful message.
Other great versions of “Over the Rainbow” include Ray Charles’ great cover from his 1963 album Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul (which remains my favorite non-Garland recording); Patti LaBelle’s impassioned but (at least to me) overwrought and over-ornamented soul version from the 1980’s; and the one Ariana Grande performed at the end of the benefit concert she gave in Manchester, England in 2017 as a benefit for the survivors and families of the victims of a terrorist attack on her earlier concert there. (Lifelong liberal Judy Garland, who’d campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, would have approved — as would lyricist Harburg, whose Leftist activism had got him blacklisted in the early 1950’s.) Damrau’s version hardly reached these heights, but it was still credible, and she scored points with me for including the show’s rarely recorded verse.
The concert ended, as it had begun, with the music of George Gershwin — specifically his 1928 tone poem An American in Paris. As he had with the Girl Crazy overture, Kirill Petrenko brought real pizzazz and swing to music that’s usually treated all too “classically.” While Nathaniel Shilkret’s 1929 recording for Victor remains my all-time favorite — it was the first time the piece was recorded, Shilkret and Gershwin (who was there) got into an argument about tempi, Gershwin stalked out but then returned just in time for Shilkret, who realized he hadn’t hired a keyboard player to perform the piece’s short but important part for celeste — Petrenko threw himself into it and, as he had with Girl Crazy, got the Berlin Philharmonic to swing.
If nothing else, the adventurous programming of the Berlin Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts is a welcome antidote for the hidebound concerts the Vienna Philharmonic gives for New Year’s. The Vienna Philharmonic always performs the music of the Strauss waltz family, interspersed with other light music from other European composers, and the program is so controlled by the traditions laid down over the years it takes a conductor with real spirit to make the program fun (as Andriss Nelsons did this year). The Berliners do a different program each year, usually centered around a different country and its light-music traditions, and this year’s show was a triumph that showed how the works of America’s musical theatre are loved, enjoyed and, most importantly understood the world over by both players and audiences.