JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

The Music That Makes Me Dance

I was harsh on the music of Legally Blonde: The Musical, and I just wanted to add a few words about that.

It’s true that the style of music in that show was not to my current musical tastes, but that was not why I was so critical of it.

Jonas Brothers

For example, the most recent Graham Norton Show featured a performance by the Jonas Brothers, and although their music is not something I would normally listen to, it did sound like music, and when the performance had completed, I could have hummed the main tune of the song if I wanted to.

Similarly, one of the guests was Gloria Estafan, a singer whose work I was not familiar with, so after watching the show, I decided to listen to a few of her songs on Apple Music. Once again her style of music is not to my liking. Oh, I like the Latin rhythms, which really are gonna get you, but she uses way too much reverb in her recordings, which in general are just overproduced as far as I’m concerned.

Gloria Estafan

But still, each song sounded like music and I recognized and often liked the melodies and harmonies that she composed. Several of the tunes lingered in my mind.

Unlike the music from Legally Blonde, whose songs had a beat that the dancers could dance to, but none of the melodies, no matter how often they were repeated and reprised, lingered in my mind. I truly doubt that anyone in the audience who was hearing those songs for the first time went out of the theatre humming any of the tunes.

Which is a real shame, because as I said, I thought the book of that show was quite good. If it only had a few good songs to go with it, I think it could have a long life. As it is, I doubt it’s going to be revived much.




Bartók

This afternoon I attended a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I don’t have a subscription this year, so this was the first concert I went to this season. It was a mixed bag.

The last few years that I had a subscription I had box seats that were in the Second Tier behind the orchestra. While this distorted the sound very slightly, it did give me a view of the conductor’s face and I could see most of the players fairly close up. And as I was reminded today as I took my seat in the Orchestra section, there was nobody behind me to cough all the way through the performance.

A few minutes before the performance as the Philadelphia Orchestra is warming up

The first work was one of my favorites by one of my favorite composers, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. When I came to Philadelphia in 1980, one of my very first concerts featured Eugene Ormandy conducting that work (a treasured memory), and I’ve heard it played at least a couple times since, most recently in 2014 under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. Today Salonen gave it another terrific performance; I just wish the coughers could have held off just a little bit longer to let the final pianissimo notes (marked ppp in the score) sound without competition. The perils of the live performance.

After intermission came two works by Béla Bartók. I have to confess, as far as I’m concerned, Bartók’s works can be divided into the Concerto for Orchestra and everything else.

I have always thought that Bartók wrote the Concerto for Orchestra in a deliberately easily accessible style, and I think he’s pandering to the audience, so I’ve never really been able to love it like so many others do. Yes, a performance can be enjoyable. But it’s a piece I tire of very easily.

Then there’s everything else.

For example, today’s pieces, the Viola Concerto, performed by Choon-Jin Chang, and the Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin.

They just don’t sound like music to me.

Let me explain.

Of course, they are music. I’m using a very loose definition when I say they don’t sound like music. What I mean is as far as I’m concerned, if the orchestra had played a bunch of musical notes that had been randomly generated by a computer instead of the notes that Bartók presumably painstakingly notated on his score, I feel I would not have been able to tell the difference. There just didn’t seem to be any coherence or logic to the series of notes. And I’ve listened to these pieces in advance, in the case of the concerto, many times.

And it’s not just these pieces. I’ve tried listening to his opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, several times in several different recordings, and I attended the concert performance a couple years ago that Yannick conducted with the Philadelphians. That opera leaves me cold.

I’ve listened to Bartók’s string quartets, his second Violin Concerto, his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and a number of other pieces. Many times.

The only works of his that sound like music are the third movement of the Viola Concerto and the opening of the second Violin Concerto. Everything else sounds like random gibberish to me.

I guess I have to conclude that Bartók’s music is just not for me.

An Enchanted Afternoon?

Liat and Lt. Cable (Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael)

As I've written previously, South Pacific is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, so I was looking forward to the Walnut Street Theatre's current production.

I like sitting front row center when possible, but the ticket I bought was for the far right seat, which had a partially obstructed view because of the palm tree on the stage and some other scenery. I've grown to accept that modern audiences generally don't stop their gabbing for the overture, but I wasn't prepared for the latecomers who jostled their way in front of me in search of their seats or the obnoxious couple to my left who kept fiddling with their phones, shining them on their programs to read and incidentally into my eyes. And said obnoxious couple were roughly my age, so they should have known better. Plus I was sitting right next to the over-amplified speaker so the sound was quite unpleasantly loud. And when the show began, I realized that with my obstructed view seat, I could only see perhaps 50% of the action on stage.

Bloody Mary (Lori Tann Chin) hawking a grass skirt

So I decided I'd leave at intermission.

But then something happened. Kate Fahrner as Nellie Forbush and Paul Schoeffler as Emile de Becque launched into my favorite song of the score, “Twin Soliloquies”, and I had an inkling of how powerful a spell this show can cast on me.

The spell continued when the men's ensemble broke into my favorite song of the show, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, performing a pitch-perfect rendition of that rousing number.

Luther Billis (Fran Prisco), Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kate Fahrner), and the Seabees

Lori Tann Chinn as Bloody Mary gave a very broad interpretation of that role, quite different from Juanita Hall’s, but I loved the way she handled my two favorite numbers from the score, “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk”. While we’re on the subject of “Bali Ha’i”, I thought the staging of that number was the director’s only major misfire. Mary begins her seduction of “Lootellin” Cable with that song and her focus should be on him and him alone; everyone else on stage should disappear from the audience’s attention. Instead, the director had the stage brightly lit and although Mary began singing directly to Cable, after a while she started roaming the stage and engaging with the various Seabees. That was just wrong. Her only interest is in Cable.

Emile de Becque (Paul Schoeffler) and Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kate Fahrner)

Nellie and the Nurses gave an outstanding performance of my absolute favorite hit song from the show, “A Wonderful Guy”, though sadly I missed most of the stage business and choreography because of the aforementioned obstructed view. But with its very long verse setting up Nellie's conflicted feelings and need to justify her decisions to her friends, followed by one of the most lilting and exhilarating waltz tunes that Rodgers or anyone ever penned, oh, what a song!

By the time Act I ended all thoughts of leaving had long since evaporated.

Ben Michael as Lt. Joseph Cable got to perform my favorite social protest number in the show, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, and Schoeffler’s performance of “This Nearly Was Mine” just might turn that into my favorite song from the score.

Overall the cast was fine, even great at times, the orchestra played wonderfully, and the staging, what I could see of it and other than the “Bali Ha’i” number, was terrific.

Captain George Brackett (Dan Olmstead) and Cmdr. William Harbison (Jeffrey Coon) drive onto the stage in a Jeep

In short, after a rocky start it turned into an enchanted afternoon after all.

UPDATE 2016-10-23: I went to see it again this afternoon at what was its final performance. This time from the mezzanine where I could see about 95% of the action. And there was a lot to see; I had missed more than I expected. My verdict still stands. I'd add “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” to my list of director misfires; it was just a little bit too well staged. But overall, I liked what I saw.

One other criticism: they cut a bit of Emile's music right after “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, but that music does appear in the underscoring a little while later. Which is why I was confused about whether it was included or not.

Mahler's Homage to Brahms

Dennis Fowler posted a comment on a classical meetup event about the similarity of the opening theme of Mahler's Symphony Number 3 to the main theme of the fourth movement of Brahms's first symphony. Was it a case of Mahler paying veiled tribute to Brahms? The Mahler theme, he said, sounds like a “minor-key ghost image” of the Brahms.

I had never noticed the similarity, so his comment inspired me to fire up MuseScore to make a direct comparison of the two themes. Here is the result.

The upper violin line is the main theme from the fourth movement of Brahms's first symphony; the horn line is the opening theme from Mahler's third symphony.

It's easy to compare the themes as they are both notated in the key of C major although the Mahler is actually in F because of the way horn music is annotated. You can decided for yourself if this was Mahler's homage to Brahms, but I think the similarity is too great to be accidental.

Here is the fourth movement of the Brahms symphony

Mahler's Third Symphony