Monday, April 26, 2010

From the Stage at 4

Program Notes for the Lincoln Civic Orchestra Concert, April 25, 2010
Written by Carolyn Dow, Polley Music Librarian (Lincoln City Libraries, Lincoln, Nebraska)

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
The American composer George Gershwin was born and raised in New York. He became interested in music at the age of 10; he studied piano and was introduced to European classical music. Gershwin left school at 15 and became a performing "song-plugger" on Tin Pan Alley. His first song was published at 17. Composing, arranging and performing led to work on Broadway shows. His collaboration with his brother Ira began in 1924 and continued for the rest of his life. Although George Gershwin was earning his living in popular music, he continued to be interested in classical music. He composed his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue, incorporating jazz into the sork for piano and orchestra. He traveled to Europe in hopes of studying with someone like Ravel or Nadia Boulanger, but they rejected him as a student, not wanting to ruin his jazz-inspired style; while in Europe, he composed An American in Paris. On Gershwin's return to the U.S., he turned to doing music for the movies. He also composed his opera Porgy and Bess. In 1936, his score for the film Shall We Dance blended balled and jazz. George Gershwin died of a brain tumor in 1937 in Hollywood, at the age of 38. His legacy in both popular and classical music lives on.

Ira Gershwin (1896-1983)
George Gershwin's older brother was one of the great American lyricists of the twentieth century. Ira didn't get involved with the music business until 1921, when he was hired away from his cashier job to write music for a show. He teamed up with his brother in 1924 to write the songs for Lady, Be Good! After that, the Gershwins worked together until George's death in 1937, writing the music for a dozen shows and four films, as well as the opera Porgy and Bess. In 1932, Ira Gershwin received the Pulizer Prize for drama for Of Thee I Sing. A few of Ira Gershwin's notable songs include "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me," and "'S Wonderful." Later collaborators included composers Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen and Arthur Schwartz. Ira Gershwin died in Beverly Hills, California in 1983 at the age of 86.

Strike Up the Band, by George and Ira Gershwin
In 1927, the Gershwin brothers were leading Broadway songwriters. Using Gilbert and Sullivan as a model, they wrote a political anti-war satire about a cheese merchant, who trying to maintain his monopoly, works to get the U.S. to declare war on Switzerland. In 1927, the show played a short try-out run in Philadelphia, never making it to Broadway. The musical is generally thought to have been ahead of its time. The 1930 revised version that did make it to Broadway lightened up on the political satire and emphasized romance instead; it ran for 191 performances. And, a 1940 film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney took the title and the title song, "Strike Up the Band," but nothing else from the Gershwin musical. As of 1936, the Gershwins allowed UCLA to use the musical's title song as one of their school songs. "Strike Up the Band," the title song of the musical, is the march the patriotic Americans sing as they head off to war with Switzerland.

The Man I Love, by George and Ira Gershwin
Written for the original 1927 production of Strike Up the Band, the song "The Man I Love" was removed from the 1930 version of the musical. However, it quickly became a popular standard on its own. A few of the singers to record the song are Helen Morgan, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Cher, and Barbra Streisand. Even Tony Bennett recorded the song as "The Girl I Love."

A Foggy Day, by George and Ira Gershwin
The Gershwins provided several songs for the 1937 musical film, A Damsel in Distress. The film was loosely based on a P.G. Wodehouse novel about an American songwriter and his success. Among the songs written for the movie was "A Foggy Day," which was sung and danced by Fred Astaire in a classic scene in the woods. Other cast members included George Burns, Gracie Allen and Joan Fontaine. George Gershwin died while the film was in production. Sometimes called "A Foggy Day in London Town," his song has become an American standard, performed and recorded by numerous singers and jazz musicians.

Lullaby, by George Gershwin
One of George Gershwin's first serious scores, Lullaby was originally written for string quartet in 1919, when Gershwin was just 21 years old. The next year, it was scored for string orchestra. The short piece is in a three-part song form, and anticipates his later song, "Summertime," from Porgy and Bess. Words that are commonly used to describe Gershwin's Lullaby include tender, touching, and beautiful.

Selections from Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin
George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess was based on the novel (and stage play) by DuBose Heyward which dealt with 1920s African American life on "Catfish Row" in Charleston, South Carolina. Heyward provided the libretto for the opera, in addition to collaborating on the lyrics with Ira Gershwin. George Gershwin began thinking about composing a folk-opera after reading Heyward's novel in 1926. Although Gershwin had contacted Heyward about collaboration in the 1920s, Gershwin did not find time to begin working on the project until 1934. The opera premiered in 1935, in New York, with a cast of classically trained African American singers -- quite a daring production for its day. The 1936 tour included the first integrated audience at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. George Gershwin considered Porgy and Bess to be his finest work, but Porgy and Bess was not fully accepted as a legitimate American opera until the 1975 production by the Houston Grand Opera. It is now part of the standard operatic repertoire.

The story concerns Porgy, a disabled black man living in the hot southern slums who attempts to rescue Bess from her violent lover and from a drug dealer. Two murders and a church picnic on an island punctuate the opera.

Gershwin's music incorporates jazz and blues, southern black musical traditions, and even melodies from Jewish liturgical music. Themes are used to depict specific characters or objects, so they appear throughout the opera as those characters or objects (such as drugs) appear. Many notable songs are from the opera, including "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "I Got Plenty o' Nottin'," "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," "Bess, You is My Woman Now," and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" (which the drug dealer sings to Bess about what a wonderful life the two of them will have up north). "Oh, Lawd, I'm on My Way" ends the opera. Today's selections include these songs and many more from the opera.

Music from The Lord of the Dance, by Ronan Hardiman
The Lord of the Dance is an Irish dancing spectacular featuring Michael Flatley, who starred, choreographed, and produced the show. He had come to fame starring in the Irish dance musical, Riverdance. The plot of the musical involves the Lord of the Dance fighting and preventing the evil Don Dorcha from taking over Planet Ireland. In a love story also running throughout the musical, Saoirse fights the wicked Morrighan for the love of the Lord of the Dance. The plot is based on Irish folklore. The show opened in Dublin in 1996, and touring trouped performed the show for the next 10 years or so.

The Irish composer Ronan Hardiman provided music for the show. Born in Dublin in 1962, Hardiman began a successful career composing music for Irish film, television and commercials in the 1990s. Along with The Lord of the Dance, he has provided "Celtic" music for other Flatley shows. More recently, he has combined Celtic music with pop influences.

Today's selections from The Lord of the Dance include the title song, "The Lord of the Dance," and "Cry of the Celts." The music is definitely Irish flavored, with lots of fiddling and drumming. The theme song borrows from the Shaker hymn tune variously called "Simple Gifts" or "Lord of the Dance." Yet it is Irish through and through.

Highlights from Wicked, by Stephen Schwartz
The musical Wicked was based on Gregory Maguire's best-selling novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which tells the story of Oz from the perspective of the witches of Oz, especially Elphaba (the future Wicked Witch of the West) and Galinda (the future Glinda, the Good Witch of the North). Their complicated relationships, rivalries, and differing views and reactions to the corruption of Oz form the basis of the show. The first act takes place before Dorthy's arrival from Kansas.

Although Wicked premiered in San Francisco in 2003, it soon broke box office records in productions around the world. It has seen great popular success, despite mixed critical reviews. The music by Stephen Schwartz has had a part in the popular success. Schwartz uses two musical themes that occur throughout the score, but he changes the instrumentation to fit the mood. Songs to be heard today include "No One Morns the Wicked," "The Wizard and
I," "Dancing Through Life," "Popular" and "Defying Gravity."

The composer and lyricist for Wicked, Stephen Schwartz, has had a career full of musical hits in theater and film. From Godspell and Pippin in the early 1970s to Wicked, and from Pocahontas to Enchanted, Schwartz has crafted music and lyrics -- winning three Grammys, three Oscars, one Golden Globe, four Drama Desk awards and been nominated for six Tonys. Born and raised in New York City, Schwartz began his broadway career shortly after college with a song for Butterflies are Free in 1969. Still going strong, in 2009, Schwartz collaborated on two songs for the album Slice by the group Five for Fighting.