On this day in classical music: Composer Jacques Offenbach was born in Cologne, Germany in 1819. The French composer created dozens of operettas during his lifetime, including “Orpheus in the Underworld,” “La belle Helene,” “La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein,” “La Perichole” and “The Drum Major’s Daughter.” Offenbach began his opera “The Tales of Hoffmann.” At the time of his death, he had completed the vocal score and had begun the orchestration. Ernest Guiraud completed the work and it was premiered in 1881. A prologue and epilogue frame the opera’s three acts, each one focusing on one of Hoffmann’s loves: the mechanical doll Olympia, the courtesan Giulietta and the singer Antonia. While the opera is full of memorable melodies, the famous “Barcarolle” from the Giulietta act is a standout. Listen to Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra play the “Barcarolle” from “The Tales of Hoffmann.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OydPTyEo9SI
On this day in the musical theatre: A somewhat unexpected hit when it opened on Broadway in April 2002, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” closed after a profitable run of 904 performances. This multiple Tony Award-winning musical proved to be a breakout hit for Sutton Foster. Plucked from the chorus when star Erin Dilly didn’t work out, Foster proved to be a genuine triple threat, that rare performer who is equally proficient at singing, dancing and acting. In the decade that followed, Foster worked almost non-stop, taking on leading roles in “Little Women,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Shrek the Musical.” Last year, Foster headed the cast of a revival of “Anything Goes” and picked up a second Tony Award. Listen to Sutton Foster and the cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” perform “Forget About the Boy” at the 2002 Tony Awards. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GVVpzTNEpA
Musical musings: Much as he wrote, Offenbach was always original. We recognize his music as Offenbach-ish after only two or three bars, and this fact alone raises him high above his French and German imitators, whose buffo operas would shrivel up miserably were we to confiscate all that is Offenbach-ish in them. He created a new style in which he reigned absolutely alone. Offenbach’s music, despite the ethnic background (Jewish) of the man, is as French as Strauss’ is Viennese. It is clean, uncluttered, unsentimental, pointed, classic. If it reflects the frivolity of the age, it does so with extreme wit and sophistication. No music has ever lived unless it has originality, and Offenbach, who could be hasty and formula-ridden, could also rise to moments of great melodic invention. – From The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.
On this day in classical music: Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” received its premiere in 1899 with Hans Richter conducting the Hallé Orchestra. The work earned Elgar an international reputation and quickly became a staple of the orchestral repertoire. Elgar dedicated the “Enigma Variations” to “my friends pictured within,” a set of 14 variations on an original theme. The “Nimrod” variation is the musical heart of the piece and is often performed as a separate work. The enigma of the title, according to Elgar, is a theme that is not played. Since its premiere, composers and musicologists have proposed countless possibilities for this hidden theme, from “Rule Britannia” to “Auld Lang Syne.” Elgar never revealed the source of this hidden theme. Listen to Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play the ninth variation, titled “Nimrod.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUgoBb8m1eE
On this day in the musical theatre: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” became the longest running musical on Broadway when it surpassed “A Chorus Line” in 1997. Based on the whimsical poetry of T. S. Eliot, “Cats” earned seven Tony Awards in 1983, including one as best musical. “Cats” ran for nearly 18 years in New York. “Cats” was bumped from its top spot when “The Phantom of the Opera” surpassed its run in January 2006. At the curtain call when “Phantom” overtook “Cats,” a white feline danced with then-Phantom Howard McGillin before leaving the stage. Listen to the show’s iconic “Memory.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-L6rEm0rnY
Musical musings: There’s a reason why “Cats,” the British musical opened at the Winter Garden last night, is likely to lurk around Broadway for a long time — and it may not be the one you expect. It’s not that this collection of anthropomorphic variety turns is a brilliant musical or that it powerfully stirs the emotions or that it has an idea in its head. Nor is the probable appeal of “Cats” a function of the publicity that has accompanied the show’s every purr since it first stalked London seventeen months ago. No, the reason why people will hunger to see “Cats” is far more simple and primal than that: It’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities of “Cats,” it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers. – From Frank Rich’s review in the New York Times.
On this day in classical music: French composer and conductor Manuel Rosenthal was born in Paris in 1904. During a career that spanned more than 50 years, Rosenthal held conducting posts with the Orchestre National de France, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Symphonique de Liège and the Metropolitan Opera. Despite having written numerous works for orchestra, chorus and the stage, his ballet arrangement of Offenbach melodies, titled “Gaîté Parisienne,” remains his best-known work. Listen to an excerpt from “Gaîté Parisienne.” Sir George Solti conducts the London Philharmonic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duiFPWblODc
On this day in the musical theatre: William Finn’s musical “A New Brain” opened off-Broadway in 1998. The autobiographical musical dealt with arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection between veins and arteries. Finn composed many of the songs shortly after his release from the hospital and later fashioned them into a musical that starred Oklahoman Kristin Chenoweth.
Musical musings: Nearly 60 years after Manuel Rosenthal culled a collection of polkas, waltzes and mazurkas from operettas by Jacques Offenbach to create the ballet score “Gaîté Parisienne,” the 92-year old conductor went into the recording studio to record this popular suite one last time. Released on the Naxos label, the ballet springs to life as if conducted by a much younger man.
On this day in classical music: Composer Peter Mennin, president of the Juilliard School from 1962 to 1983, died at age 60 in 1983. Despite his academic duties, Mennin was a prolific composer, completing nine symphonies, concertos for flute, piano and cello, “Canzona” for band and various choral works. He withdrew his first two symphonies; the third, his doctoral dissertation, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Walter Hendl. Mennin’s works often feature melodies that are complemented by driving rhythms. Listen to the Sacred Winds Ensemble perform Mennin’s “Canzona.” Scott Bersaglia conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVlAfkzGmrs
On this day in the musical theatre: The Broadway revival of “The Pajama Game,” starring Harry Connick, Jr. and Oklahoman Kelli O’Hara, closed in 2006 after 129 performances. The Richard Adler/Jerry Ross musical focused on a pajama factory superintendent who falls in love with a grievance committee leader. In spite of being on either side of the labor dispute (workers were demanding a 7½ cent hourly raise), the two principals resolved their issues and the musical had a happy ending. The original 1954 production won six Tony Awards, including one for best musical. The 2006 revival won awards for choreography and best revival. Adler composed one new song for the revival, reworked another from the 1973 revival, and restored a third that was dropped shortly after the 1954 production opened. Listen to Connick and O’Hara perform “There Once Was a Man,” followed by the cast performing “Hernando’s Hideaway” on the 1996 Tony Award broadcast. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyxjQBvHB6c
Musical musings: After four years at Peabody (Conservatory), Mennin’s abilities as an administrator distinguished him to the degree that he was offered the presidencies of the Oberlin Conservatory, the Eastman School of Music, and the Curtis Institute in addition to Juilliard. His acceptance of Juilliard made the front page of the New York Times. Mennin had chosen Juilliard because he wanted the challenge of building a new school at Lincoln Center to rival and surpass the great European conservatories, especially those in Moscow and Paris. – From Juilliard: A History by Andrea Olmstead.
On this day in classical music: Organist and composer Maurice Durufle died in Paris at age 84 in 1986. In 1927, Durufle became Louis Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame Cathedral. Two years later, Durufle became organist at St-Etienne-du-Mont, a position he held until his death. Between 1943 and 1970, Durufle taught harmony at the Paris Conservatory. In addition to his works for organ, Durufle composed a “Requiem” in 1947. Written in memory of the composer’s father, the nine-movement “Requiem” is scored for choir, orchestra and two soloists. Listen to Christian Barthen play the ”Toccata” from the “Suite No. 5.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NURM-nkP94
On this day in the musical theatre: The curiously-named musical “Flahooley” closed on Broadway in 1951. With a score by Sammy Fain and E.Y. Harburg, “Flahooley” told the tale of the world’s largest toy company and a laughing doll (named Flahooley). Harburg was prompted to write the musical after he was blacklisted a year earlier. Starring Barbara Cook in her Broadway debut, along with Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, “Flahooley” featured puppets by Bil and Cora Baird. Despite its more lighthearted elements, the show was a parody of Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch hunts.
Musical musings: “Flahooley,” like the Harburg-Saidy “Finian’s Rainbow,” was a fantasy underlying contemporary social satire. The targets this time were conformity and big business, and the “Flahooley” burnings and genie hunts were comments on the tactics of Senator McCarthy. But “Flahooley” was never solemn or preachy, and it contains a fascinating score. Fain wrote his best Broadway tunes for the show, and Harburg contributed his customary marvelous lyrics.
On this day in classical music: Composer Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway in 1843. Known primarily as a miniaturist, Grieg composed 10 sets of “Lyric Pieces” for piano. He later was dubbed “the Chopin of the North.” In 1868, he composed his best known work, the “Piano Concerto in A Minor.” In the spring of 1870, Grieg showed his manuscript to Franz Liszt who played it at sight and offered suggestions about its orchestration. In 1876, Grieg composed incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt.” Grieg later created two orchestral suites of music from “Peer Gynt.” Listen to the Histoire Ensemble perform the “Praeludium” from Grieg’s “Holberg Suite.” Tara Simoncic conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBDVxyjW0eg
On this day in the musical theatre: Following a Broadway run of 1,443 performances (3½ years), “The Sound of Music” closed in 1963. It was to be the last Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Hammerstein died nine months after “The Sound of Music” opened. The film version with Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews opened in 1965 and became one of Hollywood’s most profitable endeavors. Listen to Julie Andrews sing the title song from “The Sound of Music.” Andre Previn conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtEFcqNAFlU
Musical musings: In his own time, Grieg was tremendously popular. He rode on the wave of nationalism that produced the equally popular Dvorak. But whereas Dvorak composed in big forms, Grieg was primarily a miniaturist (Grieg was in Debussy’s words, “bonbons wrapped in snow”); and whereas Dvorak is as popular as ever, Grieg’s reputation fell almost as rapidly as it had risen. Shortly after his death, few musicians would take Grieg seriously. His once piquant chromatic harmonies, which had so titillated music lovers, were accused of being cloying. Grieg, in short, was as out of fashion as the stovepipe hat and velveteen jackets of his period. – From The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.
On this day in classical music: Reinhold Gliere’s ballet “The Red Poppy” received its premiere in Moscow in 1927. Set in a Chinese seaport where a ship is docked, “The Red Poppy” told the story of a young Chinese girl who dances for the sailors. The work’s most famous music is the “Russian Sailors Dance.” Listen to the popular work here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9EphP0u2xg
On this day in the musical theatre: After 182 previews (the most ever for any Broadway musical), the firing of director Julie Taymor, a month-long shutdown and a $75 million price tag, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” finally opened on Broadway. Based on the Marvel Comics characters and the 2002 film starring Tobey Maguire, “Spider-Man” opened to lackluster reviews, most of which praised the special flying sequences but little else. Curiosity has kept the show running, with most performances averaging between 80 and 90 percent of capacity (the Foxwoods Theatre seats 1,930). Given the musical’s high running costs, it will have to run for years to recoup its hefty investment. Watch a montage from the musical here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU440u65WrA
Musical musings: With all of the backstage drama that accompanied “Spider-Man” during its troubled previews, rewritings, postponements, technical failures and hazardous working conditions (many actors were injured when flying sequences malfunctioned; others were left hanging mid-air and had to be rescued), critics were gunning for “Spider-Man.” They outdid themselves in panning the musical, flinging their poisoned prose much like Peter Parker unleashed his special powers. Here’s a bit of Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times: “First seen and deplored by critics several months ago — when impatient journalists (including me) broke the media embargo for reviews as the show’s opening date kept sliding into a misty future — this singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore. The first time I saw the show, it was like watching the Hindenburg burn and crash. This time ‘Spider-Man’ — which was originally conceived by the (since departed) visionary director Julie Taymor with the rock musicians Bono and the Edge (of U2) — stirred foggy, not unpleasant childhood memories of second-tier sci-fi TV in the 1960s, with blatantly artificial sets and actors in unconvincing alien masks. ‘Spider-Man’ may be the only Broadway show of the past half-century to make international headlines regularly, often with the adjective ‘troubled’ attached to its title.”
On this day in classical music: William Walton’s “Facade” received its premiere in 1923. Walton created an instrumental accompaniment for Dame Edith Sitwell’s quirky but descriptive poems. At the premiere, Sitwell read her poems through a megaphone. The brief poems are often humorous, as evident by such titles as “Clowns’ Houses,” “Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone,” “Came the Great Popinjay” and “Jodelling Song.” Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed a ballet based on “Facade” in 1931. Watch Bryden Thompson and the Ulster Orchestra play the “Polka” from “Facade.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdgaQCYFa4Y
On this day in the musical theatre: The revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” closed on Broadway in 1999. Kristin Chenoweth’s Tony Award-winning performance further established the Oklahoma performer as one of the musical theater’s finest talents. The original production, which ran off-Broadway for nearly four years following its 1967 opening, became one of the most frequently staged musicals in high school and college theaters. The popular show was based on the “Peanuts” comic strip characters created by Charles Schulz. For the 1999 revival, composer Andrew Lippa penned three new songs, including “My New Philosophy” for Chenoweth’s character Sally. Chenoweth performs the humorous number on the 1999 Tony Awards. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=060nwhVzzlw
Musical musings: Critics had mixed feelings about this 1999 revival but were nearly unanimous in their praise for Chenoweth. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review was typical: “Ms. Chenoweth has appeared in New York before, most notably in ‘Steel Pier’ and Encores’ concert version of ‘Strike Up the Band,’ but this is the part that should seal her reputation. This glow cast by a star-in-the-making gives a real Broadway magic to a show that otherwise feels sadly shrunken in a Times Square theater.”
On this day in classical music: Leonard Bernstein’s chamber opera “Trouble in Tahiti” was given its premiere in 1952. This early work spotlighted a day in the lives of Sam and Dinah, a desperately unhappy couple who have trouble communicating. Three singers — Bernstein referred to them as “a Greek chorus born of the radio commercial” — comments on the idyllic nature of suburban middle-class life in the 1950s. In 1983, Bernstein used “Trouble in Tahiti” as the middle portion of his opera “A Quiet Place.” Soprano Dawn Upshaw performs “What a Movie!” with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGc0dwQWm74
On this day in the musical theatre: The Ervin Drake/Budd Schulberg musical “What Makes Sammy Run” closed on Broadway in 1964. Based on the 1941 novel by Schulberg, the musical chronicled the rise and fall of a young Jewish boy who escaped a life of poverty by rising through the ranks of the motion picture industry. Steve Lawrence starred as Sammy in a production that ran 540 performances.
Musical musings: A trouble-ridden, long-running flop, complete with front page “star” troubles. Steve Lawrence added lines at will, publicly “bad-mouthed” the show, and called in sick for 32 performances — including the big Christmas/New Year’s holiday week! On his next excursion through stormy Broadway seas, Lawrence made sure to run things himself. “Golden Rainbow” (1968) it was called, from the 1957 comedy “A Hole In the Head.” A real stinker. – From Opening Nights on Broadway by Steven Suskin.
On this day in classical music: Andre Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere of Alan Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales” in 1970. The composer’s reputation was established 15 years earlier when Leopold Stokowski gave the premiere of the “Symphony No. 2,” known as “Mysterious Mountain.” Hovhaness employed sounds made by humpback and killer whales in his orchestral piece “And God Created Great Whales.” The inclusion of these extramusical sounds followed in the tradition of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” which incorporates the sound of a nightingale. Listen to Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra perform “And God Creatd Great Whales.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?=RzSWGPmjwjA
On this day in the musical theatre: The Barbara Harris/John Cullum vehicle “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” closed on Broadway in 1965. Frederick Loewe decided to retire after the success of “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot,” leaving lyricist Alan J. Lerner to search for a new partner. He turned to Burton Lane (whose last successful show had been “Finian’s Rainbow” in 1947). The two men created a lovely score that included “Come Back to Me,” “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have,” “Melinda” and the soaring title song. Lerner’s less successful book told of a psychiatrist who hypnotized a young lady trying to quit smoking. Under hypnosis, it’s revealed that she had another life as an 18th century young woman. In 1970, Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand starred in a big screen version of “On a Clear Day.” Harry Connick, Jr. returned to Broadway to star in a 2011 revival of the stage musical, its first in nearly a half century.
Musical musings: In a 1979 discussion of musicals with “original” stories, rather than adaptations, Jimmy (“A Chorus Line”) Kirkwood complimented Lerner: “I remember in the intermission feeling so happy that I didn’t know how ‘On a Clear Day’ was going to end.” “I didn’t either,” Lerner responded. “That was the trouble.” – From More Opening Nights on Broadway by Steven Suskin.
The musical’s original creative team was to have been Richard Rodgers (music), Lerner (book and lyrics) and Gower Champion (direction and choreography). Lerner’s erratic work schedule was a constant frustration for Rodgers, who after being stood up one too many times, backed out of the project. Barbara Harris was the show’s one constant. Her first costar was Robert Horton. He left to go into “110 in the Shade.” Louis Jourdan (the star of Lerner and Loewe’s “Gigi”) took over but was let go after the show opened to lackluster reviews in Boston. John Cullum, who had been Richard Burton’s understudy in Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” was finally signed to the project. And while Lane provided an impressive musical score, Lerner’s book was problematic. “On a Clear Day” managed to run for 280 performances, but closed at a loss.