by Barry Drogin
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In one of my most read pieces, “Horizons ’83 --- Since 1968, A New Romanticism? A Symphonic Analysis in Three Sections,” I listed ten of my favorite post-WWI modernist classical music works (spanning the dates 1923 to 1966), including works for solo piano, string quartet, violin duet, chamber ensemble, string orchestra, full orchestra, and chorus. I immediately bemoaned who I left out, and, of course, there are no statements about works composed in the over fifty years since.
I have made no similar lists of other forms of music, as, for example, favorite music-theatre pieces, although one can get an inkling in my fantasy proposal, The New York Singer’s Theater.
Recently, I decided to create the modern equivalent of a mix-tape of songs, which I burned to CD and made available to myself as iTunes and Windows Media Player playlists. The song genre can be pretty widely defined, and picking ten was difficult. In fact, I failed, picking only nine.
The exercise was simplified somewhat by deciding that each composer in the genre would get only one piece each, as in the post-WWI list cited above. Most were composer-lyricists I loved.
In this case, many of the choices surprised me. And, again, I have bemoaned everyone I have had to leave out. But it makes a nifty CD/playlist.
Since I originally wrote this, YouTube has made many of these recordings available by displaying advertising and providing royalties to the copyright holders. Except for the first and last piece, I've found all of the originals (a few extend a little longer than on my original mix-tape, but that's alright). For the first piece, I've had to substitute a cabaret version for the original broadway cast recording - strangely, it omits the last line of the song ("I guess they always will be there."). For the last piece, I've substituted another song by Amy X Neuburg, Life Stepped In from the same album, Residue. Unfortunately, only the first and last piece will play on my website, you'll have to click on "YouTube" to listen to them all. Enjoy!
You can read my commentary on the mix-tape below.
These are presented in playlist order, which has its own inner logic.
1. Diary of a Homecoming Queen, (Craig Carnelia) – Of all my selections, this is the most unusual, and one that doesn’t necessarily stand up to hearing again and again. I am not a huge Craig Carnelia fan, and the musical this is from, Is There Life After High School?, I panned in college. Years later I rediscovered the score on a radio show, introduced by this statement from Mr. Carnelia:
To me there is nothing more exciting in musical theater than someone standing on a stage singing a song in which something happens. Something occurs in the song itself. The person finds something out while singing the song or the audience finds something out about the person that the person doesn’t even know.I agree with him – this is an exciting song. And who would think a line like “It’s amazing what they do with animation” could be so emotionally devastating? This is the ultimate sub-text song, and it belongs on my list. It was this or the popular favorite, Stephen Schwartz’s “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife sung by a young unknown Patti LuPone. I went with the unusual choice – Maureen Silliman is the performer.
2. Good Thing Going (Stephen Sondheim) – There is going to be a trend here – sentimental songs by composers I love known primarily for their modern, unsentimental work. There are so many other Sondheim songs I could pick, but this is him being so uncharacteristically (and honestly) simple – except for a spectacular bridge couplet with no less than five rhymes in thirteen syllables. From Merrily We Roll Along, the last Prince/Tunick musical. Lonny Price is performing, and that’s actually Jim Walton accompanying him on-stage on piano (well, given it’s a studio recording, maybe it’s not).
3. Class (Kander and Ebb) – Again, so many to choose from from these two. This number I heard very late in life, and it is so constantly surprising, in tone and manner. From Chicago (didn’t make it into the bad film version), Chita Rivera and Mary McCarty performing.
4. Change (William Finn) – So many spectacular songs, but when I heard this version, it instantly became one of my favorite songs. So Finn definitely can do sentimental (Elegies), but this is not, breaking the trend. I don’t have Mary Testa’s performance from the original cast recording of A New Brain, my recording is from Make Me A Song in a stripped down piano arrangement. Sandy Binion is the lead, Darren R. Cohen is accompanying on piano in front of a live audience and, as with many William Finn songs, the entire cast is chiming in on harmony.
5. Pirate Jenny (Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill) – For my mix-tape I chose Lotte Lenya singing the accessible English version, translation by Marc Blitzstein, from the original Off-Broadway cast album of The Threepenny Opera. A little too fast for my taste; of course, the one in German on the Lotte Lenya album is better, but this will do fine. The ultimate not nice (nicht nett!) song.
6. Sniper (Harry Chapin) – From the oddly-titled album Sniper and Other Love Songs, this song is anything but, an immensely powerful story song on the darkest subject matter imaginable, making sense of the incomprehensible. The singer-songwriter is, of course, performing.
7. Love Scene (Leonard Bernstein) – An odd choice for a composer I adore – this is the late master, in his opera, A Quiet Place, struggling to express extremely powerful emotions, stretching song form to its limits, with haunting melodies. Stephen Wadsworth is credited as librettist, but you never know with Lenny. My selection is from Scene 3 of Act II, Beverly Morgan starts things off, Peter Kazaras replies, and the orchestra wraps it up at the end as the scene shifts focus to the father character trying to give a goodnight kiss to the brother character.
8. Emily (Marc Blitzstein) – Originally known as “The Ballad of the Bombadier” from, of all things, The Airborne Symphony, this is an obvious choice. Again, a sentimental song from a composer known for his political polemics and awkward wordplay. But he gets it exactly right here. And who can eliminate the symphonic introduction? From the Bernstein recording, David Watson is performing.
9. My God (Amy X Neuburg) – A studio version of a spectacular solo looper performance, hard to choose a favorite, but this is obvious, for too many reasons. Not a musical theater piece? No, pure new music-theater. From the CD, Residue.
No Number Ten – what to add? Another comic song, from Lehrer or Ruby? A belter song sung by Streisand or Merman or Martin or Sinatra? Another musical theater song by Loesser or Loerner and Lowe or Porter? A spectacular melody by Richard Rodgers or Andrew Lloyd Webber or Paul McCartney? Something from the classical realm by Berg or Stravinsky, or the opera realm by Verdi or Puccini? Another cabaret song? Something obscure? Something of my own? Oh, let’s stop at nine.
In consideration after the fact, I find that the most important thing about almost all of these songs is that they cannot be put on in the background - what makes them my favorite songs are the words in combination with the melody and accompaniment, and you must stop and listen to the words to properly appreciate the song. The one exception, perhaps, is Leonard Bernstein's "Love Scene," sung by opera singers, not entirely intelligible, some of it in French - but the music contains all of the emotion one needs to know, and, unlike much contemporary opera, the important musical material is in the vocal melody, not in the accompaniment - except, of course, at the end, which is an orchestral interlude (in my recording I cut some of the beginning, starting with the "Trouble in Tahiti" quote ("You know, there is a garden") and the choral material at the end.
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