Friday, February 27, 2009

Big Bang

As we approached the exultant coda of Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 Friday morning [February 27, 2009] at Powell Hall, I was suddenly reminded of a passage in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in which the Venticelli (Shaffer's equivalent of a Greek chorus) complain about Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. "All those weird harmonies", they snipe, "and never a good bang at the you know when to clap". Had those fictional constructs been present that morning, they would have been pleased; if it has nothing else, the "Organ" symphony certainly has a good bang at the end, and the St. Louis Symphony and organ soloist John Romeri certainly delivered it.

Fortunately, the French master's third has more going for it than mere bombast. Written as a homage to Franz Liszt (who died shortly after work on the symphony had begun), the work includes prominent roles for piano and organ - the two instruments most closely associated with the late composer. Saint-Saëns also employs one of Liszt's favorite compositional techniques: the development of an elaborate musical structure from a single motif - in this case, a rising four-note phrase first played by the oboe in the short opening Adagio. Over the course of the ensuing half-hour, a majestic oak of a symphony grows from that little acorn. Like many of Saint-Saëns compositions, the Third Symphony ingeniously combines musical intelligence with popular appeal, and I like to think that the standing ovation it got on Friday was an acknowledgement both the work's head and heart.

It was also, of course, an acknowledgement of the Symphony's virtuoso performance. Under the baton of Jun Märkl, who moved the first movement's allegro moderato along at a sometimes hair-raising pace, the musicians performed as one finely-tuned instrument. The woodwinds and strings tossed off rapid passages with ease, sectional balance was always quite good and, yes, the finale had a certified rouser. Granted, the electronic organ didn't have the presence of The Real Thing, but music reproduction technology has come a long way in recent years. A subwoofer isn't the same as a 32' pipe but, to paraphrase The Bard, 'twas enough and did suffice.

Unlike Saint-Saëns and Liszt, Antonín Dvorák wasn't primarily a pianist. His first musical loves were the violin and viola, so it's not surprising that his works for strings - especially the quartets - are among his most profound and admired. That being the case, it was probably inevitable that his Op. 33 Piano Concerto, written at the request of the Czech pianist Karel Slavkovsky, would turn out to be the ugly stepsister among his solo works. Snubbed by critics and viewed with disappointment by the composer himself (“I see I am unable to write a Concerto for a virtuoso”), the concerto has languished over the years despite advocacy by noted pianists such as Rudolf Firkusny, who gave the work its local premiere in 1969, six years after his landmark recording.

Listening to Friday's performance with Garrick Ohlsson at the keyboard, I think I can see one reason for the neglect. Although technically challenging, the piano part isn't particularly flashy and doesn't stand out all that much from the orchestra. It's almost as though Dvorák had written a symphony with piano rather than a traditional late-19th-century concerto. Revisions to the piano part in the early 20th century by Czech pianist Vilém Kurz and, in the early 1960s, by Firkusny don't seem to have substantially altered the concerto's fortunes. Perhaps pianists see the game as not being worth the candle. In any case, Ohlsson and the SLSO made a very persuasive case for this rarity. He and Märkl appeared to take considerable delight in the performance, and the overall joy was infectious.

Maybe this is the sort of piece that just needs a great deal of TLC to be effective. If so, it certainly got all that and more. Audience response was so warm and sustained, in fact, that Ohlsson came back for an encore: Chopin's Waltz in E-Flat (Op. 18, No. 1), performed with the grace and wit that you would expect of a former Chopin International Piano Competition winner.

The concert opened with the evergreen Les Preludes by the man memorialized by “Organ” Symphony, Franz Liszt. Märkl and the SLSO musicians could probably do this chestnut in their sleep but there was nothing routine or slapdash about the performance. The winds did overpower the strings in the climaxes, but overall it was an effective reading with all the drama and punch you'd expect.

Friday's program will be repeated Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM [February 28 and March 1]; for ticket information call 314-534-1700. For lovers of the Romantic repertoire in general and Dvorák or Saint-Saëns in particular the concert is, of course, a “must see”. Besides, there's a really good bang at the end.

Next at Powell Hall: The Hubbard Street Dance company March 6th and 7th performing to music of Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bernstein, Britten and Mozart. David Robertson will be at the podium. Visit the SLSO web site at for details.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

At Ease

How comfortable is Tom Wopat on a cabaret stage? Comfortable enough pull out a guitar and start entertaining the audience fifteen minutes before his show was scheduled to start. Comfortable enough to sit down at a front table with some local cabaret artists to watch his brilliant sidemen - pianist and music director Andy Ezrin and local bassist Tom Kennedy - during one of the many instrumental breaks. Comfortable enough, in short, to make the Kranzberg Center's cabaret room feel almost like a living room.

Why do I bring that up? Because one of the first things a cabaret artist needs to do is make the audience comfortable. The more confident and at ease you are on that small stage, the easier it will be to take the folks you're performing for along on the musical journey you have planned. Mr. Wopat, to paraphrase Cole Porter, has got that thing, that certain thing, that makes us all want to watch him sing.

And a good thing, too, since Mr. Wopat made it clear he wasn't going to play it safe. Starting with a performance of Arlen and Harburg's "Last Night When We Were Young" that began a capella and off microphone and continuing through a program that included unusual takes on "That's Life" and "Over the Rainbow" and even a song of his own, "Thailand Sea", Mr. Wopat made what seemed to me to be a number of risky choices. The fact that they generally worked quite well is an indication of how accomplished he is in this genre. Even working under the handicap of a bout of hoarseness didn't prevent him from delivering a solid, entertaining show.

Mr. Wopat is a man of many voices. A veteran of Broadway and television, he had a parallel career as a country singer until 2000, when he turned his attention to recording American Songbook standards. The Tom Wopat on stage at the Kranzberg this week, however, was neither the Broadway baritone nor the country crooner. This Tom Wopat was a jazz vocalist, and a darned good one. Whether zipping through the lyrical whitewater of Annie Ross' "Twisted" (which puts words to a Wardell Grey sax solo from the 1950s) or giving full measure to a heart-on-the-sleeve Jimmy Webb number like "If These Walls Could Talk", he was on solid musical ground, hoarseness not withstanding.

There were, perhaps, moments when Mr. Wopat seemed more interested in ringing changes on the melody than in expressing the lyric, as in his swinging upbeat version of the Gershwin's "But Not For Me". But he didn't go that route any more often than other jazz-inflected cabaret acts I've seen and even when he did, it was still a pleasure to watch.

It was equally pleasurable watching the work of Andy Ezrin and Tom Kennedy - something I had plenty of opportunities to do, given how often Mr. Wopat stepped aside and let them mix it up. I have commented on Mr. Kennedy's virtuoso bass playing in the past, so all I need to say here is that, yes, he's still aces in my book. Mr. Ezrin was new to me. He's not only an exceptional solo performer but, as a friend brought to my attention afterwards, he also knows how to recede into the aural background when necessary. That's not as easy to do as you might think - even top-notch pianists can sometimes come close to overwhelming their singers. Kudos to Mr. Ezrin for doing it so well. I only wish I'd had another $20 in cash on hand Thursday night so I could have bought his CD as well as Mr. Wopat's.

The bottom line is that a splendid time was had by all. My only real regret is that I arrived too late to catch much of Mr. Wopat's pre-show set. If he ever makes it back to town again, I'll make a point of showing up earlier.

Tom Wopat played the Kranzberg Center February 11th through 14th under the Cabaret St. Louis banner. If you want to know where Mr. Wopat will be taking his many voices next, check out his web site, . Next up in the Cabaret St. Louis season is a return engagement by the evergreen Marilyn Maye at the Savoy Room March 19th and 20th. For more information, visit . The next cabaret show at the Kranzberg is our own Jeff Wright in An Evening With Mr. Wright on February 20th, with a reprise on March 14th. For more information on that, go to .

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rustles of Spring

I emailed my friend Maud, inviting her to see the tour of the 2006 hit musical Spring Awakening, and included a plot synopsis. Her response - "It sounds just horrible and I'd love to see it" - pretty much mirrored my own thinking. Based on the controversial 1891 play Frühlings Erwachen by German dramatist Franz Wedekind, Spring Awakening deals with teenagers trying to understand their budding sexuality in a neurotically oppressive environment where the topic can't even be mentioned. "The original play", according to Wikipedia , "was banned in Germany due to its portrayal of masturbation, abortion, rape and suicide." It does sound horrible.

On stage, though, it's nothing short of wonderful. Duncan Shiek's rock score, while wildly anachronistic for the 1891 setting, radiates a hormone-drenched intensity that's absolutely right for his angry and confused teen protagonists. Besides, most of the songs serve to illuminate the characters' emotional states rather than advance the plot, so the sight of late-19th-century German schoolboys pulling out wireless microphones and launching into aggressive numbers like "The Bitch of Living" seems no more absurd than any other musical theatre contrivance.

And brother, does it ever work. Particularly in the high-energy first act, Spring Awakening has a grab-you-by-the-throat intensity that's impossible to resist. It loses a bit of that in the second act, when most of the plot's emotional axe-blows fall, but by then I was so taken by the show's originality and drive that it didn't matter. Steven Sater's book and lyrics, Michael Mayer's direction, Christine Jones' scenic design, Susan Hifferty's costumes and Kevin Adams' lighting and Bill T. Jones' choreography all combine harmoniously with the score to deliver maximum impact. Jones' work, in particular, brilliantly turns the kids' desperate attempts to escape the repression of their daily lives into violent, angular action.

The story centers on two friends - the brilliant and rebellious Melchior and the troubled Moritz. Tormented by the incomprehensible onset of puberty and rejected by his father for failing to advance at school, Moritz commits suicide. When a dissertation that the more enlightened Melchior had written for him on the facts of life is found among the boy's possessions, the hypocritical headmasters use it to blame Melchior for corrupting his friend and causing his death. Worse yet, Melchior's brief roll in the hayloft with the naïve Wendla - whose mother has let her believe that you can't have children until you're married - results in a pregnancy.

Melchior is shipped off to a brutal reformatory. He escapes, expecting to find Wendla and run away with her, only to discover that she has died from an illegal abortion arranged by her mother. On the brink of suicide himself, Melchior is visited by the ghosts of Moritz and Wendla, who urge him to go on with his life and remember theirs. "I'll never let them go", sings Melchior. "Just watch me. / I'm calling. / And one day all will know."

Yes, the story is of another century. But the themes of sexual repression, hypocrisy and cynical cruelty are, sadly, evergreen. As the Melchior sings in "All That's Known": "All they say / Is ‘Trust in What is Written.' / Wars are made, / And somehow that is wisdom. / Thought is suspect, / And money is their idol". The malady lingers on.

The ensemble cast for this tour is uniformly strong, led by Kyle Riabko and Blake Bashoff - both alumni of the Broadway production - as Melchior and Moritz. Singer/songwriter Christy Altomare beautifully captures Wendla's tragic vulnerability and Steffi D has a great cameo as the "fallen woman", Ilse.

As a way of dramatizing the uniformity of oppression, Sater's book has all of the authority figures - from clueless mothers to arrogant headmasters - played by the same two actors. In this production those roles are filled wonderfully by Angela Reed and Henry Stram. Praise is also due to Sarah Hunt as Martha, victimized by a sexually abusive father and a mother deeply in denial. Her song, "The Dark I Know So Well", is heart wrenching.

Under the sometimes overly demonstrative direction of Jared Stein the on-stage rock band, augmented by a small string section, is tight and precise. Better yet, the sound, while loud enough to give the necessary visceral kick to Sheik's music, gets nowhere near "bleeding ear" territory and the vocals are crisp, clear and completely understandable - something of a rarity for tours of rock musicals.

Ironically, this powerful and intelligent show about troubled teens comes with an adults-only "explicit content" warning. It's there largely because of the occasional sexually explicit scene and Anglo-Saxon expletive. So if that sort of thing offends you then, by all means, give this a miss. But if you want to find out just how great a rock musical can be, then by all means rush to get your tickets for Spring Awakening. It plays the Fox through February 22nd; call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Two for the Road

The choice of an opening number is always a crucial one for a cabaret act. Ideally, you want something that's an attention-grabber, that plays to your strengths as a performer, and that gives the audience some idea of what to expect from you. The song Liz Callaway and Alex Rybeck chose to open their two-night Cabaret St. Louis gig at the Sheldon this Thursday [February 5th, 2009] - Bernstein's "Something's Coming" from West Side Story - did all that and more.

Although only a few minutes long, the performance encompassed everything we'd see and hear for the next two hours: Ms. Callaway's vocal virtuosity and music theatre smarts, Mr. Rybeck's endlessly inventive arrangements and polished pianism, and the easy give-and-take between these two consummate cabaret pros.

It don't get much better than that.

For those of us lucky enough to have seen Ms. Callaway and/or Mr. Rybeck in action before, of course, none of this will come as a surprise. For everyone else it was, presumably, a joyous discovery.

Witness, for example, the spontaneous standing ovation following their penultimate song - Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory", which Ms. Callaway performed for several years on Broadway. Yes, a more cynical reviewer than yours truly might dismiss that as a kind of Pavlovian response to a classic "eleven o'clock number". But that wouldn't explain repetition of that "standing o" after the closer - the more reflective "The Story Goes On" from Maltby and Shire's 1983 Baby, which she also did on Broadway. Standing ovations are sometimes cheaply bought here, but this was simply recognition of a job well done.

No, Liz Callaway is not her more famous sibling Ann Hampton Callaway - a fact she mines for comic gold in a send-up of "I've Gotta Be Me". She is her own unique and equally talented self, as she demonstrated in an evening rich with mostly familiar songs from Broadway and Hollywood delivered with a winning combination of skill and sincerity. There was also a delightful brace of hits from the 1960s (from her recent The Beat Goes On CD) that made up the bulk of what has become the obligatory second act at the Savoy Room. It's a tribute to Ms. Callaway and Mr. Rybeck's abilities that a long intermission cannot wither them nor bar prices stale their infinite variety.

I keep referring to Ms. Callaway and Mr. Rybeck together because they are clearly equal partners in the act. For some cabaret artists, the guy at the piano is there to support the star. He might have done the arrangements and might get a couple of solo breaks, but there's never any doubt about who's in charge. As I have observed in the past, however, Mr. Rybeck is very strong performer in his own right - a fact Ms. Callaway obviously appreciates and of which she makes good use. He's a solid backup vocalist, for example, in "Half as Big as Life" (from Burt Bacharach and Hal David's only Broadway musical, Promises, Promises) and a medley of "The Beat Goes On" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)", and occasional comic foil at other times. Throughout the evening, his smart, "on the scene" arrangements kept everything flowing smoothly; before we knew it 10 PM had arrived and we were applauding.

I see that I have spent so much bandwidth praising the performers that I haven't said much about the program itself. Without going into laborious detail, I'll just note that there were over two dozen very well-chosen numbers ranging from the tried and true ("People", "Leavin' on a Jet Plane", and an ingenious Gershwin medley) to the semi-obscure ("What More Do I Need", from Saturday Night, an early Sondheim show that closed before it could open). There were lovely ballads such as Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark" and Loesser's "My Heart is So Full of You", up-tempo numbers like the aforementioned Gershwin medley, and some wonderful comic songs, including a parody of Sondheim's "Another Hundred People" that gets plenty of laughs out of the difficulty of singing some of The Great Man's trickier compositions (e.g., "Another hundred lyrics just flew out of my brain"). Ms. Callaway even included a nod to her career in animated musicals with Flaherty and Ahrens' "Journey to the Past" from Anastasia (1997) - a film that looks and sounds so much like a stage musical I'm surprised someone hasn't done the adaptation already.

It was, in short, a great evening at the cabaret. Even the usually mediocre sound at the Savoy Room seemed clearer and the smaller number of tables, while unfortunate from a financial point of view, made for better sight lines. To paraphrase Mr. Sondheim, what more did we need?

By the time you read this, of course, Liz Callaway and Alex Rybeck will already have moved on to their next gigs. You can find out what Ms. Callaway is up to at her web site, . Mr. Rybeck, alas, does not have a web site, but if you're a Facebook person you'll find him there.

Next in the Cabaret St. Louis season: Broadway baritone Tom Wopat with Andy Ezrin on the ivories at the Kranzberg Center February 11th through 14th. For more information, call 314-523-1111 or check out their site at .