* Frankie and Johnny*
* Those Everlasting Blues^
* Willie the Weeper**
Melisa Barrick, soprano*
Denise Edds, soprano*
Diane Kesling, mezzo*^
John DeHaan, tenor**
Hot Spring Music Festival Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Chorus/Richard
Naxos 8.559086 Total time: 63:29
Summary for the Busy Executive: High times with low life.
American composer Jerome Moross comes out of the Thirties New York Left.
He joined such lights as Elie Siegmeister, Arthur Berger, Bernard Herrmann,
Vivian Fine, and Paul Bowles in a kind of composers' study group, under
the guidance of Aaron Copland, to talk music and to go over one another's
work-in-progress. Almost all of them faced a conflict between their
artistic and political lives. At one time, almost all of them wrote in
a hierophantic, aggressively Modern idiom, the kind that used to empty
concert halls and now graces such popular entertainment as movies and
commercials. On the other hand, they felt a duty to connect with the
proletariat - the very folks who, if they listened to classical-music
concerts at all, walked out or switched off the radio at the opening
measures of Awful Modern Music. Well aware of the problem, they either
ignored it (Arthur Berger), stopped composing (Ruth Crawford Seeger),
or looked to vernacular music - American folk music, pop, jazz - for a
way out. Critics usually credit Virgil Thomson for discovering the last.
Aaron Copland writes an appreciative letter to Thomson and praises him
for giving American composers "a lesson" in how to use folk music without
betraying their artistic consciences.
Moross resorts to the last path. The Naxos CD includes Those Everlasting
Blues, an extended aria on the Alfred Kreymborg poem. Moross wrote it
in 1932 at the ripe old age of 19, a student of the radical Henry Cowell.
There are jazz elements in it, but highly abstracted, like a bit of
newsprint in a Cubist collage or ragtime in an Ives sonata. I suspect
many even today would find it a rough ride. In several ways, it typifies
young man's music, especially in its desire to be taken very seriously
indeed. But Moross quickly changed. Naxos's inclusion of it in the
program shows how very far, very quickly Moross went. By 1935, he hits
on his trademark mix of blues, proto-jazz, vaudeville songs, folk music,
and camp songs. The new music has the efficiency, elegance, and geniality
of Mozart, never inflated to bathos. It entertains like a Broadway show.
Moross wrote the ballet Frankie and Johnny in 1938 for the Chicago
choreographer Ruth Page. It wittily mixes dance with song. A trio
of Salvation Army "savin' Susies" comments on the action with raunchy,
low-down, Mae-Westian take-offs on the well-known bluesy, blowsy tune.
Frankie works herself up to a jealous rage and shoots her lover to, if
you listen carefully, very Modern music indeed. I was struck this time
around by expressive devices borrowed from Stravinsky and Ives. But
you don't think of either Stravinsky or Ives. You hardly think at all,
because you're too busy getting the socks charmed off your feet. This
is at least the third recording of Frankie I know of (the first, originally
on a Desto LP and transferred to Bay Cities CD 1007, conducted by Hendl;
the second by Falletta and the New Zealand Symphony on Koch 3-7367-2
H1), and it's got a lot to recommend it. Falletta and the New Zealanders
may play more symphonically and more precisely than Rosenberg and the
Hot Springs Music Festival, but the Americans seem to have more fun.
For me, Willie the Weeper gives the most pleasure, not least because
it's new to me. As far as I know, it gets its first-ever recording,
definitely the first in its orchestrated version. It forms the second
part of Ballet Ballads (1948), a triptych of ballet one-acters by Moross
and librettist extraordinaire John Latouche. The trio of dances (Susanna
and the Elders, Willie the Weeper, and The Eccentricities of Davy Crockett)
appeared first off-, then on-Broadway to great acclaim. I don't believe
any of the trio has ever appeared in commercial recording until now,
which kind of lets you know the shelf life of great acclaim. Until now,
I've only read about the Ballet Ballads in books. Keeping in mind the
economics of off-Broadway, Moross provided a piano-vocal score but always
intended to orchestrate the dances. What with one thing and another,
however, the opportunity didn't arise until 1966, when CBS paid Moross
to orchestrate Willie for a show which never aired. Obviously I can't
speak to the other two parts, but Willie's a knockout. As in Frankie
and Johnny, Moross mixes song and dance, but here even more elaborately,
calling for a tenor and chorus, with either solo or chorus in every
movement. Moross remarked that he wanted "to so mix the singing and
dancing that you didn't know where the singers began or where the dancers
ended." Alert listeners will recognize the links to Weill and Brecht's
Seven Deadly Sins. Indeed, as with Brecht's Singing Anna and Dancing
Anna, we find a Singing Willie and a Dancing Willie, representative of
two places in the character's psyche. The plot tells about Willie and
his reefer, "the magical weed" which allows him to escape his dreary
life into fantasies of wealth, power, sex, and (pathetically) even simple
acceptance. Latouche bases his text on a couple of urban folk rhymes,
"Willie the Weeper" and "Cocaine Lil":
Did you ever hear about Willie the Weeper?
Made his livin' as a chimneysweeper.
Cocaine Lil, Cocaine Lil.
She lives in Cocaine Town on Cocaine Hill.
She has a cocaine dog and a cocaine cat,
and they fight all night with a cocaine rat.
Moross comes up with a score that pays homage to the twelve-bar blues
and to boogie-woogie. Almost all the music varies these forms, with the
exception of two "pop" numbers, one foreshadowing the later Moross-Latouche
musical, The Golden Apple, beloved of Broadway cultists, toward the end.
The work opens and ends in a rolling marijuana haze. Along the way we
get frenzied blues, seductive blues, sad blues, and so on. The blues,
of course, has a definite harmonic structure, and Moross amazes me with
the modulating changes he comes up with, still in the spirit of the
blues. At one point, I suspect he's in two keys at once or dancing on
the edge of a shimmering divide between two keys. Latouche comes up
with so many wonderful lyrics, it's hard for me to decide what to quote.
At random, I've picked the following from the episode "Famous Willie":
In Turkestan, in Kansas City, Kan.
In Moxie or Biloxi who's the favorite man?
Who's the chap who is the apple of the pub-a-lic eye?
It's twelve-tone Willie when he hangs it high.
But there's also Cocaine Lil's enchantingly syncopated refrain:
'Cause it's oh baby, and gee baby,
And m-m-m baby, and ah,
And it's well, well baby, and swell baby,
Then good-bye baby, good-bye, ta-ta.
Obviously, both Moross and Latouche intend something at least a bit
satiric, but Moross's music humanizes it. It gets us to genuinely care
about poor Willie, even as he sinks back into stupor.
The Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra mixes, as a matter
of mission, professionals with students, and, to some extent, it sounds
like it. Intonation is professional, but attacks aren't particularly
crisp. Nevertheless, Rosenberg does a fantastic job getting inside
Moross's music. The student Festival Chamber Chorus has voices a bit
young, but the diction and characterization of the words leave many
a professional group in the dust. Everything has the happy energy of
a Broadway show. Mezzo Diane Kesling scores a tour-de-force in Those
Everlasting Blues. This ain't easy music, and she treads a fine
line between an "operatic" and a vernacular approach. Unlike most
classically-trained singers, including native speakers, she actually
knows how to sing in English without sounding like Margaret Dumont or
as if she's trying to swallow a mouthful of hot mush. It's a solid
dramatic performance as much as a feat of singing. I can say the same
for tenor John DeHaan in Willie. He comes closer to musical comedy than
Kesling does, but his declamation isn't as crisp. Still, a fine job of
singing and a fine performance as well.
The sound is quite good for each piece, but I do want to complain about
the different recording levels between Those Everlasting Blues (recorded
much higher) and the two ballets. A comfortable level for Frankie and
Willie becomes slightly painful with Those Everlasting Blues. A comfortable
level for Those Everlasting Blues makes you strain to hear the ballets.
Other than that, a great CD, especially for the price.
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