Reassessing ‘Porgy and Bess’ as an opera

Let’s just say it grows in my estimation every time I hear or see the Metropolitan Opera’s production.

There’s so much packed into its 3¼ hours that the full story can seem unwieldy and overwhelming, but I’m thinking maybe it actually needs to be longer, have more air to allow digestion, with a dinner intermission and perhaps jazz dance/combo interludes inserted at key points in the narrative.

Porgy is not simply the best American opera to date, contrary to the Vienna dismissal of it as a “folk” opera, but, yes, I’d now place it among the top ten ever, in a global view. The grander the reach, the more likelihood of imperfections. Guess where I am on that spectrum?

Quite simply, has any other produced so many hit tunes, especially as jazz standards? Composer George Gershwin held Georges Bizet as an idol, yet has anyone else spawned so many classic offerings from a single stage work? Not even Bizet, nor anyone else I can think of. Just a single hot tune would be considered success. And his have proved incredibly flexible and addictive.

Gershwin had already had a string of Broadway stage successes, but he wasn’t resting on his laurels. No, he agonized over this work and his previously stifled artistic visions. Make that ambitions.

Has anyone else so successfully addressed the realities of drug addiction or prostitution?

Courtesan, as in La Traviata, seems downright respectable in comparison. Bess is raw.

Does anybody else agree Eric Owens and Angel Blue deserve Tonys and Oscars for their performances?

 

When one seemingly random thought leads to a mental snowstorm

Do you ever have something float into your mind, seemingly at random, only to have a cluster of related bits fly up all around, too?

I recently had that regarding the Los Angeles Master Chorale, of all things.

I had long assumed that it had grown out of a marvelous ensemble, the Roger Wagner Chorale, which I heard twice in my early concertgoing exposure. The touring group consisted of 24 excellent professional voices blended into velvety perfection by a choral conductor who, at the time, was considered one of the two best in America.

Robert Shaw was the other and went on to eclipse Wagner. That’s another story.

In the day, both directors assembled programs ranging from Renaissance to Broadway and Hollywood – Shaw had even been groomed to be successor to Fred Waring at the Pennsylvanians before being veered off into hard-core classical by Arturo Toscanini and George Szell.

A close friend of mine told of his high school choir director’s annual summer trek to study under Wagner, returning with a sharpened sense of diction – something I never really considered until becoming a choir member myself – along with some mysterious but nifty tricks to obtain it. (Wish I knew more now.) And then Wagner faded from sight, not without leaving some highly regarded musical tracks on well-known movies.

In southern California, the Master Chorale had somehow taken on a life of its own and was best known in the wider concert world for its work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I rather assumed it had morphed into the orchestra’s in-house choir, like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus with the Boston Symphony, but somehow had roots with Wagner. From time to time I’d hear broadcasts concerts.

More recently, in trying to practice for Quoddy Voices on Zoom, I found myself exploring some incredible warmups and performances on YouTube. I chanced across several of a Palestrina motet I’d performed with Revelsingers in Boston, and it was fun to get out my score and sing along. One tape, though, turned out to be 21 minutes of grueling rehearsal with a rather overbearing, name-dropping guest conductor who never let them get beyond the fourth measure, mostly because of diction issues regarding the Latin. Who did he think he was, I objected. The piece itself barely runs three minutes.

Paul Salamunovich?

Turns out he was the Master Chorale’s recently retired leader, and before that Wagner’s right-hand man. And that sent me piecing all of these random thoughts together in a kind of corrective surgery – or is it more like one of those clear-glass globes you turn over in your hand to launch a snowstorm?

By the way, I had the pleasure of watching Shaw live four times in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Bloomington. Maybe I’ll get around to posting that experience someday.

Just back from a hike

No ticks, thank God!

The black flies, meanwhile, were in swarms.

~*~

Supposedly the island’s infamous red ants keep the tick population at bay here in Eastport. Fire ants?

Another pestilence.

Still, I’ve learned to inspect carefully for ticks after any outing inland. Somehow, I hadn’t had to face them prior to New England.

Black flies, though, are particularly nasty. They’re tiny and attack first individually around the mouth and nose and then as swarms or small clouds that leave nasty bites from mid-April through mid-July, especially when there’s no wind or you’re away from the sea.

Yes, that sea seems to keep them away from Eastport.

The skeeters will come later.

You don’t see any of this in the L.L. Bean catalog version of Maine.

In the “Black Fly Song” by Wade Hemsworth, made famous by folksinger Bill Staines, the action is placed in northern Ontario, though it’s of little comfort to know the pests range so far across the northern forests.

The lyrics nail the misery so well, For I’m all but goin’ crazy.

The reason, of course:

It was black fly, black fly everywhere
A-crawlin’ in your whiskers, a-crawlin’ in your hair
A-swimmin’ in the soup, and a’swimmin in the tea

As the chorus goes:

And the black flies, the little black flies
Always the black fly, no matter where you go
I’ll die with the black fly a-picking my bones
~*~

It’s true, no joke.

Staines, by the way, lived one town over from Dover, where I was. Small world.

And I should note the bumper sticker: Black Flies, Defenders of the Wilderness.

We just did two live concerts!

Even with the masks, it was an incredible experience. Appearing live in concert usually is.

Not every singer I’ve known enjoys performing in public, a situation that can be anxiety-inducing. Yes, even chorus members suffer butterflies. Going on stage or the equivalent is a much different encounter than singing together in a rehearsal space, perhaps even in a circle facing each other.

Wisely, our part of the program was shorter than usual, reflecting the Covid-restricted rehearsal schedule and our return after two years of distancing and general inactivity. Our vocal cords were rusty and have had to get in running order again.

Even after some of the pop standards I’d sung in the Boston Revels autumn equinox affair on the banks of the Charles River, I still didn’t expect to be performing a rock hit, much less a five-part arrangement that was mostly counterpoint with some wildly shifting time signatures. REM’s “Shiny Happy People,” anyone? It’s more sophisticated than I would have believed, even with a bass part that felt, well, like playing air bass guitar.

The Wailin’ Jennys’ “One Voice” and Eric Whitacre’s “Sing Gently” were gorgeous paeans to the art of vocal music made when we unite as one, in this case including singers and audience.

There was the premiere of conductor John Newell’s five-part memorial to longtime Eastport arts inspiration Joyce Weber, “Lux Aeterna.” I hope we did it justice.

The traditional spiritual “Keep Your Lamps” was lively fun with a bouncy piano accompaniment and some fine bass lines, something that’s not always a given.

Dan Campolieta’s passionate setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Will There Really Be a Morning” gave us males a chance to sit out and just listen.

The heart of a concert is the audience, somehow completing the art at hand and making it real. I’ll add there’s a parallel with a readership for a writer or poet or a table of diners for a chef.

The arts center’s upstairs performance space seats about 120, so we were close to an audience of family, friends, and neighbors sharing our love of making music together.

How can I not be looking forward to more?

A musician’s insight on leadership

The question of just what a symphony orchestra maestro actually does led to an unexpected answer about leadership on a YouTube interview. According to the 59-year-old Paavo Jarvi, a conductor is essentially a teacher, regardless of the quality of the players. That, more than his artistic vision or temperament or divine inspiration or managerial skills.

It had me thinking about the best bosses I’ve had and realizing their excellence was as teachers.

How about you? What do you look for in a leader?

~*~

By the way, I was rather startled when I came across Paavo’s age. I still think of him as a “young” conductor, one of Max Rudolf’s last students.

He’s now the age Dr. Rudolf was as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra, a fine ensemble Paavo later directed for a decade before turning his attention to Europe.

Is bassist Ron Carter the most recorded jazz musician of all time?

I found myself asking that several times after hearing radio announcers rattle off the performers’ names on jazz recordings and thought, “Carter again? Isn’t he everywhere?” And I’ve finally looked it up.

The answer? Yes! Though usually as a side man. He started recording in 1960 and by 2015, at last count, he had 2,221 issues on that instrument. There were others on cello. And he’s still plucking away.

While we’re at it, we should acknowledge the Wrecking Company, a loose affiliation of studio musicians in Los Angeles who are credited with being the most recorded, though not all at the same time.

As for most recorded, period? That honor goes to two sisters in India, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, who turned out more than 25,000 songs for Bollywood.

Now, how does a song compare to an LP or CD?

Comparisons do get tricky.

Where creativity and community meet

That’s the slogan of the Eastport Arts Center, housed in the 1837 Washington Street Baptist church after that congregation moved up the road and renamed itself Cornerstone Baptist in 2005.

Eastport Arts Center, Washington Street.

Only two blocks from the waterfront downtown, the center is the home of the Stage East theater company, Northern Lights Film Society (how I’m awaiting its reawakening from its Covid hiatus), Quoddy Voices, Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony, a series of visiting musicians in many genres, lectures of all stripes, and even yoga and New England contradances. Its activities range from performances and rehearsals to exhibitions and workshops, physical fitness and dance, open mics and communal meals. It’s also available for rental.

Upstairs features a 106-seat theater/concert hall, while downstairs has an open community gathering space, gallery, and commercial kitchen.

The venture itself was spearheaded by the eight artists who cofounded the Eastport Gallery on Water Street, which by 1990 had become a hub and magnet for creative spirits in town. The gallery remains a constituent organization member of the center.

I’m especially glad it’s all just a short walk from my doorstep.

Quite simply, I see it as the heart of the community, something that makes Eastport unique. Recent Sunday afternoons have hosted a delightful cycle of music, discussions of visual arts and local businesses, historical insights, and even free mustard.

Across the country, one institution often dominates the culture life of the wider community. In Cincinnati or Cleveland, for instance, I’d say it was the symphony orchestra.

In New Hampshire, was the New Hampshire Symphony, before its demise, or the Currier Gallery of Art.

What’s the biggest cultural influence where you live?

Ah, yes, it’s orgy season again!

Not to disappoint you, but I’m referring to Harvard University’s radio station WHRB-FM, which does stream online, should you be interested.

Its orgy season is a tradition that occurs during finals exams’ week (plus), originating when one student who was so elated at surviving the tests that when he went into the studio, he celebrated its end by playing all of Beethoven’s symphonies, on 78s, in order.

How modest that seems now. A year and a half ago, the station played everything Ludwig ever wrote in honor of an anniversary.

Bob Dylan received a similar accolade a few years ago.

This year Franz Schubert’s in the focus, more than 120 hours, by the way, which creates a smaller orgy of its own for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was acclaimed for his many, many recordings of the many lieder, or songs.

In fact, when his daughter was asked what her daddy did, she quipped, He makes records. So many, in fact, he’s among the most recorded artists ever.

My late German mother-in-law would have been out of this world over this orgy.

Well, as I post this, the station’s just getting going.

 

What a joy to be finally rehearsing together in person

I had no idea how we’d sound as an ensemble or even whether I’d measure up. Officially, I’ve been a member of the choir more than a year now, but all of that time, we gathered only on Zoom. We soon learned to mute ourselves for even the warmups, and our director did accomplish a miracle in taking our individual home-recorded stabs at two pieces and blending them into a virtual performance that wound up sounding better than we had any right to expect, especially considering my horrid best efforts. I simply assumed he used only the finest voices in his studio note-by-note studio wizardry while mercifully sidelining the rest of us or at least me. I wouldn’t say that any of the other pieces recorded before Covid really offered a clue of what we’d be like now.

So Monday night was a kind of debut for us, our return to weekly live, in-the-flesh rehearsals at the arts center, nary a laptop in sight.

When we sat down in our semi-circle, just 15 of us, I had reason to be dubious. For starters, like the population in general around here, our median age skewers topside. Voices do change as they age. For another, a small body like this leaves no room for error, each member is more exposed and requires more precise breathing than we’d face in a group of 50 to 80, as I’d been privileged to have before. Five individuals were absent, all with decent excuses. Twenty can make for a fine professional chorus, but we’re amateurs of varying degrees.

I’d already met one of the basses and knew of a third, the one who can hit notes four steps lower than I’ll ever manage even with a heavy cold. And then, praise be, I was introduced to a fourth section member. Go team!

We were all masked as a Covid precaution, but even after ordering special singers’ coverings, we had no idea how freely we’d be able to breathe and enunciate.

I didn’t even know how well I could follow our conductor. You get adjusted to different styles of leadership and expression. On Zoom, he was always trying to juggle a keyboard, a score, maybe a screen-sharing insertion or a recorded track, plus beat time and throw cues to the little squares at the top of the screen while we wound up a half count off the beat as a consequence of delays in transmission or electronic hiccups.

All that was now irrelevant. Taa-taa! The time of launch arrived. We got our first pitch and then the upbeat, and when we opened our mouths and uttered the first notes, everything melted gloriously. And that was just in warmup exercises.

When we turned to the pieces we’ve been practicing at home, we were joined by a pianist who had already impressed me with a recent recital. Our director could turn his full attention to leading us cleanly and expressively. Yes, his mask prevented his mouth from conveying the words, but not every conductor does that anyway.

There were rough edges and other imperfections, but there was also a palpable feeling of support through the presence of each other and a certainty that we can accomplish what needs to be reached in time for two concert performances a month from now.

It’s exciting. Making music with them was one of the big reasons I had moved to Eastport. I liked their repertoire, akin to what I’d done in Boston, and I like the fact I can walk to our performance space. Learning something new about music, my own abilities, and us as a community is invigorating.

What are you especially enjoying as we come out of Covid restrictions?

In the comfort of my own home

Oh, the joys of online streaming! In my case, music, classical and jazz. Or when everyone else is up visiting, what we’re watching on the big screen. The one I call the wall of death, when it’s black with nothing on, or even when it’s blazing action blood, aliens, car crashes, and meaningless gore.

Yeah, I love having my beloved circle spending time in this place that’s ultimately theirs. For now, it’s like our extraordinary tides. Hopefully, I can roll with it.

Call me a fuddy-duddy, one living in a remote fishing village with a lively arts scene on an island in Maine, but that doesn’t mean I’m isolated from what I might be dialing in on the radio in Boston or New York, much less attending live. I have an ear on weekly orchestral concerts or Metropolitan Opera, for starters. And we do have some incredible live performances here, musical and theatrical, just less frequently. Oh, my, do we! Many of them are only eight blocks from home, an easy stroll.

Well, the opportunities for ethic food deliveries are another matter – even pizza. Things you might take for granted. But that’s offset by things like fresh scallops, which you’ll never eat anyplace else.

I’m not so sure how I’d feel about all this if I were exiled to some small place in North Dakota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, by the way. But this really feels like home.

One thing for sure. I had no idea this was my destination, back when I was in college back in Indiana. But I really have no complaints, other than trying to keep warm through deep winter.