Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 2/26/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #703:

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris: Leonard Bernstein

Today we turn from the obscene and juvenile to one of the most urbane and sophisticated albums on this list. It might come as a surprise to some that for several generations of New Yorkers, these pieces were a rite of passage, as much a staple of frathouses as concert halls. This is George Gershwin at the peak of his powers as one of the first, and best, white bluesmen. And who more appropriate to deliver the jaunty ragtime suite Rhapsody in Blue along with its companion An American in Paris – one of the most unselfconsciously romantic pieces of music ever written – than Leonard Bernstein? The first he does with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (assembled by the label) and the second with the NY Philharmonic. This late 80s reissue makes a diptych of both epically sweeping mid-50s mono recordings. Strangely, a little sleuthing didn’t turn up a single link for the album, although you can download them separately: Rhapsody in Blue here and An American in Paris here.

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February 26, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russell Saint John Sings Hall Johnson’s Spirituals in NYC 2/25/10

Hall Johnson, baritone singer Russell Saint John told the crowd last night at Merkin Hall, was a pretty amazing guy. World-renowned as a choirmaster and vocal coach in the 1930s onward (he taught Marian Anderson, among others), he learned piano from his sister at age eight, taught himself violin and viola after seeing Frederick Douglass’ grandson play a recital, and seems to have been a musicologist from a very early age. His arrangements of the spirituals he grew up with as the son of an AME minister bear a considerable resemblance to his contemporary, George Gershwin, which may seem ironic but actually further validates Gershwin as being true to the source of his inspiration. Because what Johnson was going for, in establishing, cataloguing and transcribing an African-American spiritual canon, was authenticity. He saw spirituals as an individual expression, and as high art: he had no use for “barbershop harmony,” as Saint John explained. Backed by Broadway United Church of Christ organist/pianist Douglas Drake’s smartly understated interpretations of Johnson’s remarkably terse, Romantically-tinged piano arrangements, Saint John – featured soloist in the choir at the Bronx’s Fordham United Methodist Church – gave the songs a stylistically diverse, emotionally varied, vibrato-laden treatment which obviously drew deeply on his operatic training and experience.

It was a good choice of singer and pianist, because Johnson’s scores, obviously influenced by European lieder and opera, so heavily emphasize the singer. Many of the arrangements – Wade in de Water, Witness [to My Lord] and I’m Gonter Tell God All o’My Troubles [spelling used here is Johnson’s] featured the vocals leading the piano, which would then gently, unostentatiously offer the occasional embellishment, Debussy taking a casual detour into the blues. Several of the one-chord minor-key blues numbers – the bitter chain gang song Swing Dat Hammer, for example – hark back vividly to Africa; others, like the raptly beautiful, atmospheric My Lord, What a Mornin’ and the absolutely gorgeous Let de Heb’n Light Shine on Me pulsed along on more varied changes, the first fertile seeds of musical cross-pollination on these shores.

Above all, Johnson took these songs seriously. What’s inarguable is that gospel music has great power; what’s open to interpretation is what that power might be. Gospel choirs make unbeatable party music; Johnson’s vision, it seems, was a considerably more personal one, an intimate communion rather than a communal fest. So it was no surprise that his arrangements of numbers like Keep A-Inchin’ Along held back from exploding into joyous ragtime. As is so often the case with spirituals, the subtext screamed. “There ain’t no crying over there,” Saint John reminded in Heaven Is One Beautiful Place: substitute “Africa” for “heaven” and the anguish of a captive held prisoner in an alien land is impossible to turn away from. At the end of the concert, Drake got a chance to join Saint John in taking the volume up as high as it would go, on intense, percussively chordal versions of the proto-soul song My God Is So High and a blazing encore of My Good Lord Done Been Here. At this point in the concert, there was no use in trying to hold back anymore – the spirit would not be denied.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments