On March 30, 2008 I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the New York premiere of A White House Cantata, the concert revision of Bernstein-Lerner’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a fast failure in 1976. The Collegiate Chorale, who was responsible for that premiere, held a gala concert called “A Jubilant Song” last night at Carnegie Hall. I was more than thrilled to go when invited, especially when I learned that they would be performing excerpts from 1600/Cantata. Now while I have my quibbles with the Cantata and the use of opera singers instead of more qualified musical theatre performers in the lead roles, it’s always a pleasure to hear selections from this exceptionally underrated, often brilliant score.
Hosted by Tony-winning actor Roger Rees, the evening was the gala inaugural concert to introduce the new music director James Bagwell, who is assuming the mantle of conductor after the unexpected death of Robert Bass. The Collegiate Chorale was first established in 1941 by Robert Shaw and has been a staple of classical repertoire in NY ever since, emphasizing choral tradition and American music but also presenting operatic works.
While there many guest vocalists, the first segment of the evening was strictly about the Chorale. The evening started with performances of Giovanni Gabrieli’s “In ecclesiis,” Alexander Kopylov’s “Svete Tihiy” and an arrangement of the spiritual “Set Down Servant.” This led into Norman Dello Joio’s “A Jubilant Song” which may be one of the most difficult choral pieces I have ever heard with intricate melodic lines and rhythms; I can only imagine what the sheet music for this piece must look like.
With the exception of Daniel Mobbs as the President, the principal singers of A White House Cantata were on hand to reprise their work from the 2008 concert performance. Mobbs was George Washington in “On Ten Square Miles by the Potomac River,” Soprano Emily Pulley sang a tender “Take Care of this House” with Kalif Omari Jones while “Anita Johnson and Robert Mack performed the infectious “Lud’s Wedding.” Pulley, in a tremendous Carnegie Hall debut, recreated her colorful “Duet for One” to the wild enthusiasm of the audience. While she’s no Patricia Routledge (who is, really?), she understands the schizophrenic comedy better than other opera singers who have taken on the part in presentations of A White House Cantata (namely Nancy Gustafson and June Anderson). The segment ended with a full-throated rendition of “To Make Us Proud,” originally cut in Philadelphia but reinstated by the Cantata. The song echos other anthems, specifically Bernstein’s own “Make Our Garden Grow.”
One of the great joys of the entire evening was hearing this music performed, not only in such a perfect performance space as Carnegie Hall, but also to hear simply pure acoustic sound. Except for Rees’ commentary, the entire evening was without amplification. Though I’ve had a considerable classical background, I haven’t gone to many concerts or to the opera as much as I’d like in recent years. Every time I do; however, I marvel at the extreme beauty of hearing music performed with some sort of electronic filter. Even some of our loveliest musicals on Broadway are miked to the hilt, with an emphasis on loud. It was especially evident how thrilling to hear selections from a score I love, with its complete original orchestration intact. 160 voices singing “To Make Us Proud,” and holding out that last note for what must be glorious eternity. You can’t ask for anything more stirring or moving.
Coloratura soprano Erin Morley, who recently made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera brought the concert to a crashing halt with an exquisite rendering of “O beau pays” from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Morley, dressed to the nines and with the poise of a true star, stunned the crowd into an extended ovation – the largest of the evening – with her gorgeous sound and flawless technique. I look forward to following the singer’s career, as I’m sure there is nothing but good things awaiting this diva on the rise.
The evening built to its climax with a performance of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy, Op. 80” Acclaimed pianist Jenny Lin proved her virtuosity and flawless proficiency with the lead-in piano solo. For the finale, Morley and tenor Salvatore Licitra were to lead the famed “Brindisi” from La Traviata; however, an emergency kept Licitra in Switzerland last evening so instead they divided up the parts between the various soloists. While they urged the audience to join in on the chorus, most of us were content to just sit back and enjoy the performers onstage.
I’m even more excited for the Collegiate Chorale’s next concert: Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath will be presented at Carnegie Hall on March 22, 2010. This marks the world premiere of a two-act concert version of the ambitious contemporary opera. Jane Fonda, Nathan Gunn, Victoria Clark, Steven Pasquale and Christine Ebersole are among the folks participating.
The world is small and funny and fine. Last night, my high school freshman English teacher, Mrs. Fran Schulz, was also at the Chorale gala. Of all the teachers I have had, she ranks as the one who has made the most impression on me, and I continue to maintain a remarkable friendship. Throughout my freshman year, she encouraged my interest in film and theatre, often handing me a package of films and performances she felt I needed to see every Friday. With a personality akin to Mame, Fran is the only teacher I’ve ever had who entered the classroom with a quality not unlike star presence. I’ve been imbued with her enthusiasm for literature and theatre, and she has always been supportive of me as a writer and performer. An avid theatregoer, she has regaled me with stories of seeing every major revival of My Fair Lady in New York and London, Camelot with Richard Burton and again with his understudy John Cullum. She also has seen every major star turn by Angela Lansbury since the original Mame. I could go on for hours. She continues to encourage and advise me, even though I haven’t been her student in 12 years. I can only hope that you’ve had a teacher like her at some point in your life.