They don’t know Broadway

Last night I saw Showboat — the grand old musical — in what was supposed to be a gala concert performance at Carnegie Hall. I don’t know how it can be very gala if hardly anyone in the cast can inhabit their roles. (Nathan Gunn was the big exception. He really knows how this music goes, and both sings and acts well enough to bring it off. He belongs on Broadway.)

But let that be. What fascinated me — and, I’ll admit, made me a little sad — was the orchestra. The musicians, in theory, were star quality, the A-list people from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. If you’re talking about classical freelance gigs in New York, this is as good as it gets. If you read through the list of the players, printed in the program, you can see (if you know the instrumental scene in New York) that these are top people.

But they didn’t seem to know how the music goes! I’ve heard them play 18th century music, Mozart and Haydn, with radiant attention to stylitstic detail, but in Showboat, they sounded — especially by comparison with their classical work — like they were merely marking time. They never launched their melodies — or, rather, Jerome Kern’s melodies, as orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett — with relaxed affection, or lingered over all the little pauses in the tunes with any kind of audible delight. They didn’t step up to the climaxes, bounce the brassy Broadway stuff, or energize the sometimes corny transitions from one tune to another with the kind of wise indulgence that can overcome the corniness.

Maybe this was the conductor’s fault, though he was a big Broadway name, Paul Gemignani. Maybe he’s good with the kind of pit musicians who traditionally have played this stuff, and know how it goes without his help. Maybe he can’t inspire symphonic musicians, or teach them the style.

But I think the musicians are a problem, too — though the problem isn’t their own fault; if they don’t know the style, they don’t know the style. I heard the same thing in South Pacific, at LIncoln Center, a famously triumphant revival, which I loved from beginning to end. (As an aside, I want to say that both shows give me little patriotic thrills. “I’m an American,” I found myself thinking, with a grin, “and I love this stuff.”)  But the orchestra couldn’t make the music go, something that became especially clear after I relistened to the original cast album from 1949. That orchestra knew exactly what it was doing, with the brass (just to cite one example) sounding completely at home in symphonic passages, and also when they had to strut out playing bits of Dixieland. Whoever they were, they sounded like they’d played both styles a lot, and didn’t even have to think of making a transition.

Whereas the orchestras I heard last night — and also in South Pacific, though less so — sounded like classical players who got timid when they had to step out in some other style. One mark of a serious classical player in the climate of the past few decades has been a kind of dignnified restraint. You just don’t get gloopy. But to play Broadway, you can’t be restrained, and you have to play things — and love them! — that from a strictly classical perspective might well be embarrassing. But still you’ve got to give them everything you’ve got, or else you’ve betrayed the style. (And thus, if I want to get fancy about it, betrayed your prime directive, the very notion that made you so restrained in the first place — you want to play everything in the proper style. But if that style demands you be improper…)

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  1. says

    This is part of why pops concerts that have the symphony play non-classical music don’t bring in new audiences: Because they typically suck. If I ever hear any symphony orchestra play a medley of funk hits ever again, I think my ears will jump off my head and go running for the exits.

    I’d have a lot more confidence in the P-Funk All-Stars taking on “Music for 18 Musicians” than I do in an orchestra playing Your Favorite Hits of the 70s, because if the P-Funk All-Stars were to play Steve Reich, they would at least really mean it.

  2. PN NJ says

    I love classical, but compared to the exuberance of pop music and jazz, many classical musicians sound like embalmers.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    Wasn’t that the way Classical musicians used to approach everything Baroque or Rennaisance? With unnecessary reverence based on lack of understanding? It’s both painful and hilarious to listen to a pre-1960’s recording of a Monteverdi or Gesualdo madrigal that is overtly sexual in text sung as if it were part of a High Mass. Yes, Classical musicians, for the most part, are limited by the repertoire they allow themselves to play, so it is not surprising that they are somewhat timid, if not disdainful (in this day and age! Tsk tsk!) of Musicals. Perhaps it’s time for a performance-practice evaluation of Broadway show tunes.

    Hell, it may be time for a similar evaluation of The Beatles of The Who!

    And now early music performers can be the liveliest classical musicians around.

    Performance practice for classic musicals is easy to study — we have the original recordings! Just play it like the musicians in the original pit orchestras did! I suspect, though, that it’s easier for the scholarly classical music world to discuss performance practice academically — and I’d guess that if someone developed a time machine, and we could hear Liszt and Thalberg play, pianists today — including those who’ve studied the performance practices of that time — would be as embarrassed as some symphonic musicians seem to be when they’re confronted with a Broadway show.

    There’s an indispensable book by William Hamilton, just published this year, called After the Golden Age. It’s about 19th century pianists, and piano playing. Hamilton has a lot of fun teasing people who know exactly what kind of pianos people like Liszt and Thalberg played, but conveniently ignore that much piano playing back then was designed for entertainment, and that every pianist improvised (including even very serious people like Mendelssohn).

  4. robert berger says

    I’m not sure if it’s fair to make such

    sweeping generalizations. I saw the PBS

    broadcast of Camelot with the New York Philharmonic as a deluxe orchestra. I thought the orchestra sounded gorgeous and the musicians

    sounded like the were really enjoying themselves.

    By the way, I am a classical musician who used to play the horn. I am also a veteran of

    many performances of musicals, which I also

    enjoyed playing.

  5. says

    I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying here. I was watching part of a Met DVD of The Magic Flute with my daughter yesterday and was struck by how stilted and mannered even the silliest parts were – it wasn’t funny in any genuine way, but rather seemed designed to make you soberly think, “That is very funny.”

    The other side of this is that there’s no aesthetic rule (as far as I know!) that says the original way/context is necessarily the best way to experience an artwork. So, while it’s easy to point out how classical music culture transforms music that is, almost by definition, from another time, there are lots of ways in which such transformations can be positive. For example, as instructive as the examples are that you’ve frequently given about people talking through opera performances of the past, it could easily be argued that we’re better off listening more quietly (even if something is lost).

    But beyond that, at its best, the layering on of different performance traditions can add a real richness, which is why we need to understand that traditions about how to listen and perform can be as important as the works themselves. For example, I love the experience of hearing enormous-sized performances of “Messiah” that owe as much to the 19th century as they do Handel’s context. Neither the Gould nor the Dinnerstein Goldbergs would likely have sounded “normal” in Bach’s time, but a reason that Bach has survived is that his music can flourish (and even grow) in so many different contexts.

    I’m not saying that these high-minded symphonic Broadway shows are achieving the same, but I’m not sure the ideal is just to sound exactly like the pit orchestras from the mid-20th century either. I think that’s my point. And I’m sure we’d both agree that what makes the most difference is that the performers are invested in what and how they’re communicating.

    Well, we have a lot of common ground here. I love the last Beecham recording of Messiah, for instance, with Jon Vickers as tenor soloist and a huge, not at all Handelian orchestra. Harps in “Comfort Ye”! Well, why not?

    And of course even supposedly authentic, period performances are modern takes on music whose original performance is, if we’re honest with ourselves, pretty hard to imagine. (Though I thought I had a flash of something a couple of nights ago, when I heard Verdi’s Un giorno di regno in a fabulous production with young singers at Wolf Trap. The orchestra was smaller than we’d hear in a big opera house today, or on a recording, with fewer strings. Which helped give the performance a scrappy sound. And since everyone — under one of the best bel canto conductors I’ve ever heard, Brian Garman (and yes, I really mean that) — seemed to be having a really good time, I felt that I might be hearing something at least vaguely like what 19th century performances would have been like. (Though the Wolf Trap orchestra was far more assured technically than 19th century orchestras most likely would have been. The scrappiness, I’m speculating, is what both might have had in common.)

    For quite a wonderful reimagining of a classic artwork, I could recommend the Walter Felsenstein movie of Fidelio, released in a comprehensive (and expensive) Felsenstein collection from Arthaus. Felsenstein streamlines the opera, to put it mildly, especially at the beginning, where he cuts out Jacquino’s and Rocco’s arias, going directly from Marzelline’s aria at the start to the canon ensemble, with appropriate bridging dialogue. He takes out all the stiffness that can make Fidelioa chore in the opera house, without losing any of the opera’s power. In tact he makes it more powerful.

  6. Suzanne Derringer says

    All part of the preciousness and pretentiousness of classical music performances – of course the orchestra members were out of their league. They probably have never listened to recordings of American musical theater, or popular music, made when that music was new – in the 1920s. There was a great outpouring of truly American exuberance then; the wonderful songs of Gus Kahn, Walter Donaldson etc. – but the printed music is never to be taken too literally. A feeling for that style is not something one learns in music school.

  7. says

    I wonder how many players could have told you what the book was about prior to entering the pit. Even now I’m sure there are still players down there that still can’t tell you what’s going on upstairs.

    I know there are schools where singer/actors can study musical theater as a discipline, but is there any corollary in the instrumental world?

    Good question. I don’t know if there’s any formal training in musical theater, but I’d guess that anyone who studies jazz at the Berklee School of Music in Boston ends up knowing how to play musical theater. More broadly, studio musicians would know. They have to play a variety of styles — basically anything out there. I’m going to guess that there are fewer studio musicians than there used to be, because now a lot of music can be created on a computer (TV scores, for instance). But the ones still active — and, of course, people currently playing in Broadway pit bands — can surely play Broadway shows.

  8. says

    This is a very interesting observation – because, as a composer, I am trying to blend the worlds of music I love – which includes Broadway, jazz, rock and classical (but not limited to these). One of the things I’ve found is when I write something and hand it to musicians, if they are classically trained, they don’t seem to get the jazz idioms (or the rock ones for that matter) – but if they’re pop trained, they don’t the classical bits… Vocalists are particularly troublesome as the opera I’m working on is a blend of classical and hip hop/pop/rock… and while the man who sang the lead male part is very familiar with rock, and I thought he did the music just right – but the critic didn’t like the “blend”.

    So, what do we do as musicians? Do we just compose in a specific genre and get musicians that know that genre and then bill it to the audience just what to expect??? Where is the desire to create something new – and make something new that requires a new approach. To do things that may be improper for one style, but just right for another.

    Chip, other composers have had this problem. My friend Scott Johnson writes classical pieces with James Brown rhythms, and the classical players never quite feel them. And I’ve written pieces with Led Zeppelin rhythms, or even a simple backbeat, and classical musicians playing the pieces don’t quite know what to do. (They get into counting the rhythms, for instance, rather than feeling them.)

    But this is an emerging area, and there are more and more people emerging into it with every passing year, so there’s hope. We’ve now got groups like the Bang on a Can All-Stars who ace the kind of music we’re talking about. Another inspiring example — the Nonesuch recording of Louis Andriessen’s opera Rosa, where you’ll hear instrumentalists and singers who not only go back and forth between classical and pop and jazz styles, but happily inhabit a territory where all those things are going on at once.

  9. Larry Weintraub says

    Very interesting but true to my experience. I am a retired saxophone/clarinet player from the Navy Band in Norfolk, VA. I have also played a bunch of shows, not in NYC on broadway but in Baltimore and Norfolk/Virginia Beach. My experinece in both the Navy and doing shows is that the classical players just do not play the commerical styles very well. However the jazz oriented and commerical players seem to play classical music better than the strictly classical players play jazz, rock and commercial music.

    I guess it is just what you decide to do with your music. I studied clarinet in college and my teacher plays in the Balto Symphony. However I also studied saxophone both classical and jazz. I think that you will find that a lot of your studio musicians in NYC and in Hollywood have very broad backgrounds, open minds and can play any style.

    Case in point. In playing with concert bands when they attempt to do jazz styles and broadway show music the following always seems to happen. When the flutes, clarinets, oboes bassoons, euphoniums, tubas etc have the melody it never swings and usually sounds corny. This is the complete opposite of when the saxes, tpts and troms have the melody. However I have experienced exceptions. I have heard and played with some tpt, trom and sax players who couldn’t swing if you hung them from a tree and pushed them.

    Well I guess thats it.