Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Loves You, Porgy

A few weeks ago I finally borrowed the cast recording of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.  I loved the voices.  I mean, Audra McDonald.  She's arguably the best singer around.  The voices on the recording were excellent.  But something kept gnawing at me.

The story goes that the Gershwin and the Heyward estates wanted to make the classic palatable for a modern audience.  It's something I don't understand, dumbing something down, the assumption that the contemporary audience can't appreciate something so "old."  I can appreciate cleaning up language.  I was quite happy, for example, when Sondheim changed a lyric in Company from "fag" to something else.  I am pleased that Porgy and Bess's racist language could be changed, although productions of the original have been changing those words all along.

But why were the arrangements changed?  Why were the original orchestrations replaced with far less interesting orchestrations?  Obviously, the producers wouldn't pay for a full orchestra, but an adaptation would work.  Instead, a "Broadway" sound was substituted for original intent.  Oh, and let's fuck with the original ending so we can get Audra onstage at curtain.

One of the first record albums I bought was the 1951 Columbia Porgy and Bess, so that's the one that's my point of reference.  After listening to the new recording, I did a search for that one.  I knew Sony released it on CD in 1998 and figured some library somewhere had to have it.  About a month later, it arrived.  Goose bumps throughout.

I read some articles on The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and became kind of horrified.  There was no visible Catfish Row; mostly it was minimal set.  No Catfish Row establishing place.  Minimal sets are OK.  And they save money.  But the background of Catfish Row looming over most of the action is a stark reminder of time and situation.  Some of the voices of the 1951 recording are not Broadway quality; instead, they sound real, convincing.  There's something to be said for that.

But I keep coming back to the orchestration.  For almost any show, the re-imagined arrangements and orchestrations are fine.  The estates did say "go to it," make it a contemporary Broadway show.  The original opera was staged, I believe, in The Music Box, one of Broadway's smallest theaters with a fair-sized but not huge orchestra pit.  Gershwin, for the most part, did his own orchestrations knowing where it would be heard.  So why the simplifications?  Broadway musicians have not become less talented through the years.

Why is it necessary to assume an audience is incapable of appreciating a serious work?  Why did the estates feel it important to update and fuck around with a monumental, if controversial, masterpiece?  Is "opera" always an awful word.  And then there's the South Pacific revival...pretty much as it was originally done and the original score played by a full-size Broadway orchestra which got its own ovation nearly every performance..

When you play around with the orchestration, particularly if the orchestration is by the composer, you play around with the entire tenor of the show.  And it's clear the arranger and orchestrator were charged with making a classic score sound like some show down the street.  The creative team decided to make some wise clean-ups; they also decided to make it pretty antiseptic

I do believe there is a serious intent to dumb things down.  And I believe that those who do the dumbing down are those who don't understand that a symphony is three or four movements, all of which are essential to the work, not just the one with the catchy theme.  I don't have a problem with Rent being a re-imagining of La boheme.  Except for an occasional quote, the story was refashioned for the contemporary audience and the music was original.

Is anyone interested in the 1951 Columbia recording?  Probably not.  It's like an old black-and-white movie.  The production values are different, it's not in stereo, the names of the stars are no longer known, how can it be at all relevant to contemporary audiences?    As Crown sings referring to Porgy, "Ain't there no whole ones left?"

It's sad to think that few people who saw The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess bothered to find out what the original opera was like.  They are happy that it's updated and sanitized, but they don't know how the original presented itself.

Yes, Jews and white people put together an opera about the lives of African Americans, in all likelihood with little subject input and with a certain reliance on stereotype.  How long has that been going on?  (That's not so much an excuse as it is an observation.)  On the other hand, how many operas have even tried to depict African American life?  And how many have done it with such an incredibly rich and understanding score?  When the music hits home, it hits home because it's about humans, about people.  And the orchestra is there to add to the emotion.  When the orchestra has to play dumbed-down, so-so reductions of what was once an incredibly gorgeous and moving score so it can sound like any other contemporary Broadway orchestra, something is seriously wrong.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Grace And Albert

Despite Gap being 99.9% white when I was growing up, I don’t believe Gap set out to be White Town, USA.  I don’t think Gap was consciously or purposefully or actively set out to be segregated.  By the same token, comparing the 1950s and today is even more nonsensical than comparing apples and oranges.
          The black people of the day lived on Zion Hill, the rise between Christiana and Atglen.  It was settled, I remember being told, by people who came north by the underground railroad.  Not all that far from Zion Hill was the site of the Christiana riot.
“On September 11, 1851, Christiana was the site of the Battle of Christiana (also called the Christiana riot), in which the local residents defended with firearms a fugitive slave, killing the slave owner. Southerners demanded the hanging of those responsible, who were accused of treason and making war on the United States, but after the first defendant was acquitted, the government dropped the case.” (Wikipedia)
I understand that Zion Hill is the perfect argument for White Town and the Black Ghetto.  So how can I argue that it wasn’t segregation?  I think that historically people settled in homogenous communities.  In that respect, because there were white settlers, white communities started by default.  African Americans came here under different circumstances and settled in their own communities.
The first two African Americans I had any contact with were Grace and Albert Wilson, my grandparents Walker’s of “the help.”  They were around when I was very young, probably pre-school young.  Honey was a good cook, but a wife and mother in her position, Gap’s upper class, would not have been expected to cook a lot or clean the mansion.  She would also have been expected to dine with company and not interrupt conversation by going to and coming from the kitchen; she’d step on a buzzer the floor to summon the next course.  Enter Grace.
          Albert, whom I remember as being tall and old, had two jobs.  One was working at the mill.  The other, to which he was second to none, was as Five Corners’ groundskeeper.  He had three yards, a rock garden, an eternally long hedge, and an untold number of trees and bushes to tend to, and tend to them he did.  The yard under the trees proper shouldn’t have had grass, owing to the tree shadow.  It was elegant.  A yard surrounded the house.  The two were separated by a rock garden with ivy and flowers.  I remember being with Honey when she and Albert were planting flowers.  Honey would dig a hole, plant the plant, and pack it in, but under Albert’s watchful eye.  The other yard was west of the barn…I imagine an exercise area for the horses.  The hedge started at the steps of the main entrance, ran up the hill to the mill, then bordered the entire length of the property and fenced in the exercise area.  It was always trimmed, as was the grass, as was the rock garden, as were the many bushes around the property.  My arms and back ache thinking of how much work Albert did and how beautifully he did it.
          Keeping the house spotless was no picnic, either.  I didn’t know Grace as well as I now wish I had.  I remember her fondly, though.  A large woman of average height, she was always in a black dress and, I think, maybe frequently a white apron.  Maybe a hat, but I couldn’t swear to it.  My mother would tell me to stay out of Grace’s way when she was busy.  Sadly, “busy” was most of the time.  And when she sat at the kitchen table, she was taking her coffee break and resting and I shouldn’t bother her.  I remember sitting at the table – she had her coffee and she’d give me a Coke or ice tea.  I don’t know what we talked about, but sometimes the conversations or stories extended into cleaning time and she’d invite me to join her.  Honey, Grace, and I would also sit at the kitchen table for lunch.
          I’ve never had great endurance.  I suspect I was more hindrance than help when I was with Albert.  I remember him as a man with lots of talent and skill…and patience.  She baked good stuff and had a laugh that warmed my cockles.  I do remember asking her why the color of her skin and the color of mine were different.  She told me, “Because God wants it that way.”  It made sense to me then; it still makes sense to me some 60 years later.
          Speaking of God, the most wonderful culinary treats happened when Grace and Albert invited my family to their church suppers at Mt. Zion AME.  There was the slight feeling of being an outsider, but what did that matter when food was concerned?  Besides, I could see Grace in the kitchen and Albert being sociable.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t like the food the first time.  I mean, there was nothing even remotely Pennsylvania Dutch about it.  Then I figured that was the point, that it was extremely rare that I experienced such different and surprising tastes in my mouth.  I anticipated those dinners.

          I understood The Help right away.  Grace and Albert were the first adult non-relatives I felt close to.  Especially Grace.  Trying to keep up with Albert was hard.  It was easier to tag along after Grace.  It was entirely appropriate that she was the one who taught me we’re all pretty much the same.  And I’m so fortunate that she shared the music of her laughter.