The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: A 75th Anniversary Celebration by Marc Thompson; forward by Marc Gershwin

p48__porgy_and_bess_coverThe Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess:
A 75th Anniversary Celebration
by Marc Thompson;
forward by Marc Gershwin
Amadeus Press
200 pages, photos; $29.99 US

• AFTER THE FIRST full rehearsal of Porgy and Bess for the premiere in 1935, George Gershwin commented, “I think the music is so marvellous – I really don’t believe I wrote it!” As Robin Thompson shows in this history of the opera, Gershwin was hardly alone in his enthusiasm for what has come to be regarded as the great American opera. Even though opening night led to misunderstandings over whether it promoted racial stereotyping, and confusion over whether it was in fact an opera, audiences cheered – and it had a remarkable run of 124 performances.

The librettist Dubose Heyward was an aristocratic white Southerner whose great–great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence, and the Gershwin brothers, composer George and lyricist Ira, were Jewish New Yorkers. Yet they had carefully based Porgy and Bess on the authentic dialects and songs of the descendants of African slaves who lived in Heywood’s hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. They insisted that only African-Americans could play the roles on stage, and refused to let Al Jolson play Porgy in blackface.

Their remarkably harmonious collaboration resulted in something entirely new – an operatic synthesis of European classical music and American jazz and blues. Thompson quotes Gershwin saying that that he hopes Porgy and Bess will combine the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Die Meistersinger. It’s a great story, and although Thompson uncovers nothing new, he tells it with style. But the most interesting aspect of his book is the way he describes the performances of Porgy and Bess throughout the years. With his own perspective as a stage director, he analyzes the performers, director and designers of the various stagings with uncommon insight.

This book has been beautifully produced (apart from the spotty index), and illustrated throughout with a wonderful collection of photos of productions and casts, letters between Heyward and Gershwin, and paintings by the multi-talented brothers themselves, including some startlingly revealing self-portraits.

Lorin Maazel, who in 1975 conducted the first performance of the complete version of Porgy and Bess since the premiere, will lead his Castleton Festival Orchestra and soloists in selections from the opera at the BlackCreek Festival on Friday, July 22 at 8.00 pm.


Playing the Human Game: Collected Poems of Alfred Brendel by Alfred Brendel with Richard Stokes

59aPlaying the Human Game:  Collected Poems of Alfred Brendel

by Alfred Brendel with Richard Stokes

Phaidon Press

600 pages, illustrations; $45.00

• IT HAS BEEN three years since pianist Alfred Brendel retired from the concert stage. That’s why, when he appeared at Koerner Hall last fall, it was to give a lecture, not a piano recital. But in fact Brendel has been sharing his thoughts about music throughout his performing career, not just in lectures, but in essays and poetry as well.

Now he has collected his poems into this handsome volume. In it, each poem is printed with the original German on one page and Brendel’s own translation, made with the assistance of Richard Stokes, on the facing page. Artworks from his personal collection are reproduced throughout, providing yet another glimpse into his aesthetic world.

Not surprisingly, musical references appear frequently in these incisive, witty and evocative poems. From the title of the collection Playing the Human Game, to chapter-headings like Masks and Music, Situations and Concepts, and Reflection and Chimera, Brendel uses vivid images that range all the way from the numinous – he has a whole section on angels – down to the mundane. For me, these poems are at their most moving when they draw the sensual and the divine together, as when Brendel writes,

Today I’m a mouse

minute enough

to patter along the pedals

into the piano

The smell of this felt

You must realize

Is something divine

Assailing our noses

Over a distance of miles

Eagerly

we set about the hammers

exploiting them to build our nests

then we nibble at the dampers

until they stop damping

What’s the point of dampers anyway

We field mice prefer Aeolian harps

With every breath of air

music materializes

all by itself

delicate and spooky

embellished by our faint whistling

Whoever heard

anything more beautiful.

59bNot new, but timely: Joan Dornemann will be coming to Toronto in early May to give coaching sessions for the International Resource Centre for Performing Artists, as part of their Opera Week. Dornemann is best known as a coach and prompter at the Metropolitan Opera. But she has also written an invaluable book, Complete Preparation: A Guide to Auditioning for Opera. In the twenty years since it was published, it hasn’t been bettered. In spite of the title, it deals with far more than auditioning. Dornemann covers every aspect of preparing for an opera role, from technique to interpretation, providing detailed practical advice for coaches, accompanists, conductors, directors, teachers and managers. At the same time, she offers an inspiring validation of the dedicated work required to make a career in opera.

Dornemann will be coaching singers May 7–9 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. Tickets for observers are $20 at the door.

Finding Your Voice by Brian W. Hands

61bFinding Your Voice
by Brian W. Hands
Bastian Publishing
146 pages, illustrations; $16.95

• It seems inevitable for singers to suffer from vocal problems at some point, whether it’s merely a cold, or something lingering, like nodules on their vocal chords. If they happen to be in Toronto, they are likely to end up in the office of laryngologist Dr. Brian Hands, whose practice includes singers from the Canadian Opera Company as well as visiting recitalists. When Hands treats a singer, as he explains in this concise guide to vocal care, he looks not just at the voice but at the singer’s whole lifestyle and general health. Since he sees the voice as a mirror of the soul, for him it actually reflects a singer’s spiritual and emotional state. This holistic approach might be too probing for a singer who is just trying to get through a performance. But fortunately this book is full of advice about dealing practically with all kinds of problems.

“Think of yourself as a vocal athlete,” Hands advises, considering prevention as much as treatment. So that means avoiding parties because of the temptations to talk too loud, eat and drink too much and stay out too late. As well, he advises, “find non-vocal ways to train or discipline children or pets.”

As a doctor, Hands treats the voice divorced from its ability to interpret music. So his glossary defines messa di voce as a vocal exercise rather than the expressive device singers value. But it’s this scientific approach that make this informative book so valuable for all “voice users,” not just singers, but actors, broadcasters, lawyers, auctioneers, teachers and therapists, as well as anyone interested in how the voice works. n

Pamela Margles can be reached at bookshelf@thewholenote.com.

Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey by Lotfi Mansouri with Donald Arthur

61aLotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey
by Lotfi Mansouri with Donald Arthur
Northeastern University Press
344 pages, photos; $44.95

• While Lotfi Mansouri was general director of the Canadian Opera Company, he wrote a sunny memoir called An Operatic Life. Now, almost thirty years later he has followed up with this far more detailed, but decidedly bittersweet, chronicle of his life. It’s a candid and probing look at the world of opera. And it’s especially compelling because, right from his lonely, privileged early years in his native Tehran, Mansouri has led a thoroughly fascinating life.

Mansouri certainly left his mark on the COC, as he proudly points out, calling the chapter on his twelve years in Toronto “From Provincialism to World-Class.” Under his leadership, the COC Orchestra and the COC Ensemble were established, a splendid home for offices and rehearsal spaces was built, and the CBC began broadcasting COC performances on radio and television. But his most far-reaching legacy – he credits his wife Midge with the original idea – is the invention of Surtitles, which have revolutionized the way opera is presented throughout the world.

Mansouri set up a Canadian Composer’s Program, though it was cancelled by his successor, Brian Dickie. He produced R. Murray Schafer’s Patria 1 (misidentified as Patria II, quite a different opera altogether), and commissioned Harry Somers’ Mario and the Magician. So it’s not just discouraging, but downright perplexing to read what he has to say about his attempts while in Toronto to find a composer for A Streetcar Named Desire (André Previn’s score was a great success for him later in San Francisco). After Stephen Sondheim(!) turned it down, “I checked out Canadian composers, of course, but most of them were academic navel-gazers … My composer had to understand smoky jazz and genteel decay. With all respect, Toronto could never inspire that kind of music – Canadians are too hygienic.”

Though his time in Toronto was “exciting, joyous and highly collaborative,” his frustrations over trying to get a new opera house built here drove him to the San Francisco Opera in 1988. Although he had spent a good deal of his directing career there, he had no inkling of the far more insidious frustrations that awaited him. The earthquake that wreaked havoc on his early seasons was nothing compared to the betrayals that eventually forced him out.

The issues weren’t merely personal. It was his traditional approach to presenting opera, which for Mansouri meant “to read between the lines without neglecting to read the lines,” that was attacked by those who wanted to see a director’s personal stamp on a production. Mansouri, who started as a singer, felt his own work as a director was being written off as not just old-fashioned, but, even more disturbingly, as lightweight. So at the heart of this book lies a plea for staging operas by using the score as the starting point, not the director’s vision.

Mansouri is a born storyteller. Among his many delightful anecdotes, my favourite tells how the irascible conductor Otto Klemperer, who had been hideously rude to Mansouri, fell asleep with his head on Mansouri’s shoulder during a dress rehearsal. “No amount of training can prepare anyone for a situation like that.” At least he keeps laughing – and making us laugh – in this wonderful memoir.

The Secret Life of Musical Notation by Roberto Poli

59_secretlife_1The Secret Life of Musical Notation
by Roberto Poli
Amadeus Press
264 pages, illustrations; $24.99 US

• At first, pianist Roberto Poli was simply questioning certain performance directions which he found confusing. How, he wondered, had composers actually intended performers to interpret markings that seemed to either contradict each other, like a hairpin < to pianissimo, or repeat each other, like a hairpin > with decrescendo written underneath.

Poli began to suspect that in the past the hairpins hadn’t been used just to indicate dynamics, as is usually assumed today. In fact, he realized that they could be indicating flexibility in the timing, or the shaping of a melody. With this, he was inspired to re-examine traditional ways of interpreting a number of musical signs, including stretti, pedalling, and sforzandi markings, though for reasons he doesn’t explain he doesn’t look at tempo markings, which, especially in the case of Beethoven, can be equally baffling.

At every step of this fascinating study, Poli has consulted original scores and documents. He has also looked at the instrument the composer wrote for, and the size of the room where the work would have been performed. This is all familiar territory to period instrument players. Yet Poli expresses no inclination to give up his modern piano in favour of an historical instrument. Instead, he advocates more freedom, suggesting that interpretations of composers’ markings have become too rigid during the past century. “Decades of traditions,” he writes, “have been instilling a sense of overexactness in our reading habits – a way of evaluating notation that is remote from how a composer probably imagined it.”

Poli looks at works by composers from Haydn to Prokofiev. But his main focus is on Chopin. As it happens, there’s an exhibit of original scores and letters from Chopin’s time on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. To celebrate Chopin’s 200th birthday, the ROM has pulled out some precious items from its rarely displayed collection of scores and instruments, including a splendid piano made by Pleyel, whose instruments Chopin favoured because of their clear bass register, transparent tone and sensitive action.

Poli’s quest for greater interpretive insight unfolds like the plot of a captivating mystery story. His ideas about what lies behind the notes on the printed page are made all the more persuasive by the many musical examples included in this book. n

 

Fryderyk Chopin & the Romantic Piano is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum in the Samuel European Galleries until March 27.


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