Something Lost in Translation: Europeans Performing American Music for Europeans

Initial Comments

My experience in music is from the American perspective, so, given that the concert Eva and I attended was of American musical pieces performed in The Netherlands by European artists for Europeans, my comments may seem out of context or unfair. Nonetheless, I am bound to give my opinion, hoping that if I give offense my impertinence will at least be understood.

However critical of the production my words may seem, I give praise to the quality and professionalism of all performers involved, on 31 July, 2014 at the famed Concertgebouw Concert Hall in Amsterdam.

The Concert Hall

2014-07-30 Amsterdam-17

I have heard “Concertgebouw” throughout my life and never imagined I would visit this much-praised hall, but here I am in my latter years about to enter it (I did change into slightly more appropriate clothing).

In the café at the entrance, Eva and enjoyed a drink and a snack before the concert. On the walls overlooking the seated guests were large photographs of performers having appeared at Concertgebouw:

Cecilia Bartoli
Maria Callas
Riccardo Chailly
Miles Davis
Gustavo Dudamel
Ella Fitzgerald
Bernard Haitink
Thomas Hampson
Vladimir Horowitz
Janine Janson
Mariss Jansons
Jessye Norman
Sonny Rollins
Jaap von Zweden

I snapped this picture of the interior just before we were seated at the very front-right section, close to the stage.

The organ dominates the stage, but this is to be expected from a hall built 128 years ago

The organ dominates the stage, but this is to be expected from a hall built 128 years ago

Because of its highly regarded acoustics, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls in the world, along with places such as Boston’s Symphony Hall and the Musikverein in Vienna.

The hall opened on 11 April 1888 with an inaugural concert, in which an orchestra of 120 musicians and a chorus of 500 singers participated, performing works of Wagner, Handel, Bach, and Beethoven. The resident orchestra of the Concertgebouw is the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which gave its first concert in the hall on 3 November 1888.

The Main Hall seats 1,974, and is 44 metres (144 ft) long, 28 metres (92 ft) wide, and 17 metres (56 ft) high. Its reverberation time is 2.8 seconds without audience, 2.2 seconds with audience, making it ideal for the late Romantic repertoire such as Mahler. Though this characteristic makes it largely unsuited for amplified music, groups such as Led Zeppelin, The Who and Pink Floyd performed there in the 1960s. It hosts not only orchestral and operatic performances, but also jazz and world music. (Source).

The Program

Isabelle Georges

Isabelle Georges

This was one of the Rebeco Summer Nights Concerts at Concertgebouw. Here’s a reproduction of the descriptive material:

Broadway’s Best: Conductor Fayçal Karoui is teaming up with vocalists Isabelle Georges and Frederik Steenbrink for this performance. (The orchestra was Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège).

Tin Pan Alley, on the corner of Broadway and West 28th Street, was responsible for producing the songs at the heart of the Broadway Melodies, the unending flow  of well-known songs for musicals and films. It’s where composers like George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and  Jerome Kern laid the basis for the Broadway musical and the tradition of the great American song. With the arrival of talking pictures at the end of the 1920s, the musical moved to the silver screen and such films as 42nd Street and Singin’ in the Rain became popular, followed later by The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. This in turn formed the basis  for the 1980s revival of the modern Broadway musical with composer such as Cy Coleman, Jerry Herman, and especially Stephen Sondheim, who, thanks to such hits as Send in the Clowns is known as the godfather of the modern musical.

Twenty-nine songs and medleys were presented (listed below). I was at a disadvantage in understanding how the selections may have fit into a general theme, or sets of themes. One or the other of the two main performers, the singers Georges and Steenbrink , spoke to the audience before every song, but neither Eva nor I understand the Dutch language. In looking over the program and in listening to the songs, most of which were familiar, I couldn’t discern what an overarching theme might be, other than a chronological recitation of Broadway songs.

There were three sets of performers: the two singers, the orchestra, and a jazz band. The latter consisted of percussion, piano, saxophone (alto, I think), and trumpet.

Frederik Steenbrink

Frederik Steenbrink

Except for the pianist who was off to one side, the players in the jazz band sat in front of the orchestra with a transparent plastic partition behind the players, separating them from the orchestra and conductor. I assume it was to keep the music (and the hearing) of the small group from being overwhelmed by the orchestra. It was a visual distraction.

The jazz band did not play in all the pieces, but when they did play they were not convincing. The saxophone, in particular, was unimaginatively played; that is, without jazzy improvisation.  It could be that the notes were all scripted and therefore lacked spontaneity and spirit. The pianist was talented and roamed the keyboard widely (sometimes overly much), but as with the saxophonist, it seemed scripted and un-spontaneous. In general, any jazz band is at a disadvantage when on a stage in a large concert hall, especially when partnered with an orchestra. In my view, there should be one or the other on stage, not both.

The orchestra, in contrast, was convincing and well-led. I was particularly taken with their interpretation of music by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

George Gershwin / Leonard Bernstein

George Gershwin / Leonard Bernstein

The program was divided into to two sessions, with a pauze in between. I sensed that the two singers, who were the primary focus of the concert, did not fully connect with the audience until the last two pieces of of the first session: “Send in the Clowns” and a medley from West Side Story. This could be, in part, that the earlier songs were of the older vintage. This is where I felt the program was weakest. Some of the early songs were not interesting or memorable. And again, for me, there was no overarching reason to present the ‘uninteresting’ ones.

A personal note on the music of Stephen Sondheim who is regarded, according to the promotional material, as “the Godfather of the modern musical.” I find his music more like accompaniment to intellectual, sometimes silly, recitatives. His most famous “Send in the Clowns”  does have a catchy melody, but the words and the book are of characters who are idle and jaded. I prefer Oscar Wilde’s treatment of such characters.

One song should not be sung by a person who is not racially ‘black,’ or convincing in emulating an emancipated slave who is working as if still enslaved: Ol’ Man River. I’m sorry, Mr.  Steenbrink, you do not fit the role, no matter how great your talents. Here is the quintessential performance of this song: Ol’ Man River, sung by Paul Robeson. (In my conversation with a friend during the writing of this review, he asserted the Russian singer Feodor Chaliapin was equal to Robeson).

© photo Lot

© photo Lot

As stated at the beginning, all the performers, including the singers, were highly skilled and professional in their singing, acting, and, in the case of Ms. Georges, tap dancing (a lovely evocation of the days of the Broadway stage and movies of the 1930s and 1940s, as I remember them).

Mr. Steenbrink was poised and polished but, in my opinion, lacked the verve and spirit I associate with the genre. Ms. Georges had plenty of spirit and bounce, but most of it had a European flavor, not an American flavor. It may well be that my expectations in this regard could not be reasonably fulfilled. On the other hand, I have experienced small-group jazz played by Swedes whom, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine playing in a venue anywhere from New Orleans northward to Chicago.

The audience reacted enthusiastically at the end of the concert, and the performers were ready with an encore which was also loudly applauded. Perhaps this is the best comment to be made here.

I’m glad to have experienced the Concertgebouw (literally, ‘concert hall’) whose artists I have heard all my life. And, I am glad, as well, to have experienced Amsterdam, a delightful city in all respects except, perhaps, the aggressiveness of the multitudinous bicycle riders.

The Songs

Overture to 42nd Street; music by Harry Warren
“Lullaby of Broadway;” Music and lyrics by Harry Warren/Al Dubin
“Steppin’ Out With My Baby” (from Easter Parade); Irving Berlin
“I Could Have Danced All Night” (from My Fair Lady); Frederick Lowe/Alan Jay Lerner
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (from Follow the Fleet); Irving Berlin
“Please Let’s Not Even Say Hello” (from December Songs); Maury Yeston
“No Moon” (from Titanic); Maury Yeston
“Usual Way” (from Nine); Maury Yeston
Mary Poppins Medley: “Chim Chim Cherie/A Spoonful of Sugar/Supercallifragilisticespialidocious:” Robert B. Sherman/Richard M. Sherman
“So in Love” (from Kiss Me Kate); Cole Porter
“Easy to Love” (from Born to Dance); Cole Porter
“Too Darn Hot” (from Kiss Me Kate): Cole Porter
“Le Jazz Hot (from Victor Victoria); Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse
“Ol’ Man River” (from Show Boat); Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein
Medley from Porgy and Bess; George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin
“Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music); Stephen Sondheim
Medley from West Side Story; Leonard Bernstein
Pauze (Intermission)
“My Favorite Things” (from The Sound of Music); Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein
“Another Hundred People” (from Company); Stephen Sondheim
“Not While I’m Around” (from Sweeney Todd); Stephen Sondheim
Medley from Singin’ in the Rain; Nacio Herb/Arthur Freed
Medley from Irma la Douce; Marguerite Monnot/Alexandre Breffort
“Rhythm is My Business” (studio recording); Lou Levy/Sammy Cahn
“Over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz); Harold Arlen
“Use What You’ve Got” (from The Life); Cy Coleman/Ira Grasman
“I Wish I Were in Love Again” (Babes in Arms): Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart
“New York, New York” (On the Town); Leonard Bernstein
“Some Other Time” (On the Town); Leonard Bernstein
“That’s Entertainment” (The Band Wagon); Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz

Conductors and Orchestra (Source)

1895–1945: Mengelberg

In 1895, Willem Mengelberg became chief conductor and remained in this position with the organization for fifty years, an unusually long tenure for a music director. He is generally regarded as having brought the orchestra to a level of major international significance, with a particular championing of such then-contemporary composers as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

For approximately its first 75 years, the Concertgebouw Orchestra had a somewhat complicated roster of conductors. In addition to the chief conductor, the orchestra had conductor positions titled “eerste dirigent” (“first conductor”), who assisted the chief conductor with programming, and “tweede dirigent” (“second conductor”), who did “what he was told.” During Mengelberg’s time as chief conductor, several of these first conductors included Karl Muck (1921–1925), Pierre Monteux (1924–1934), Bruno Walter (1934–1939), and Eugen Jochum (1941–1943). Musicians who served as “second conductor” included the composer Cornelis Dopper, Evert Cornelis and Eduard van Beinum.

In 1945, because of the controversy over his relationship with the Nazi occupying forces during the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, Mengelberg was removed as chief conductor and subsequently banned from conducting. The ban was initially imposed for the remainder of his life, but after an appeal, reduced to six years, applied retroactively from 1945. Mengelberg died in 1951 just before the end of his sentence, thus never conducting the orchestra after 1945.

1945–1985: Van Beinum and Haitink

From 1945 to 1959, the orchestra’s principal conductor was Eduard van Beinum, who had debuted with the orchestra in 1929. He had become the second conductor of the orchestra in 1931, and co-principal conductor in 1938. One of his specialties was the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, and Van Beinum made commercial recordings with the orchestra of Bruckner’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies for the Philips Records. Van Beinum served as sole chief conductor of the orchestra after World War II until his sudden death on the Concertgebouw podium from a fatal heart attack in April 1959.

Bernard Haitink made his debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on 7 November 1956. After Van Beinum’s death, from 1961 to 1963, Haitink and Eugen Jochum shared the post of chief conductor of the orchestra. Haitink became sole chief conductor in 1963, and served in this post until 1988. At some point during Haitink’s time, the conductor system was simplified to have an assistant conductor instead of first- and second-conductors. Conductors who served in this capacity included Edo de Waart and Hans Vonk. The recording profile of the orchestra increased most dramatically under Haitink, with many recordings for the Philips Records, as well as EMI and Columbia Records. In the early 1980s, the Dutch government threatened the orchestra with reductions in its government subsidy that could potentially have led to the dismissal of 23 musicians from the orchestra. Haitink threatened to resign in protest, and the financial situation was eventually settled. In 1999, Haitink was named the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate.

1985–current: Chailly and Jansons

Riccardo Chailly made his debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1985, and was elected that year as their next chief conductor to succeed Haitink. As the first non-Dutchman to hold the post, Chailly served as chief conductor from 1988 to 2004. His recordings with the orchestra include complete Mahler and Brahms symphony cycles and several Bruckner symphonies. He is a strong advocate of modern music and recorded shorter works of Shostakovich, the complete Kammermusiken of Paul Hindemith, and the orchestral works of Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse. After his departure in 2004, Chailly was named Conductor Emeritus of the RCO.

The Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons made his RCO debut in 1988 and was elected chief conductor on 22 October 2002. His tenure officially began on 1 September 2004, with an initial contract of three years. Premières during Janson’s tenure have included Hans Werner Henze’s Sebastian im Traum, a RCO co-commission. In April 2014, the orchestra announced the scheduled conclusion of Jansons’ tenure as chief conductor afer the 2014-2015 season.

Orchestra

The orchestra enjoyed a close relationship with Gustav Mahler and championed many of his symphonies, with an especially worthy festival of his music being the 1920 Mahler Festival. Other conductors who worked closely with the Concertgebouw Orchestra included Pierre Monteux, Eugen Jochum, George Szell and Kirill Kondrashin, who was the “permanent guest conductor” from 1978 until his death in 1981. More recently, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was named Honorary Guest Conductor of the RCO in 2000.

Another factor in creating the orchestra’s distinct character is that the Concertgebouw Orchestra has had only six chief conductors, setting it apart from orchestras of similar age and caliber. The nearly one thousand recordings that the orchestra has to its credit have also contributed to this reputation. The orchestra also serves as one of the opera orchestras for productions of the Dutch National Opera.

Jan Raes is the orchestra’s executive director, since 1 December 2008, succeeding Jan Willem Loot, who retired in November 2008. Past artistic directors of the Concertgebouw Orchestra have included Rudolf Mengelberg, Marius Flothuis (1955–1974), and Peter Ruzicka. The present head of artistic administration for the orchestra is Joel Ethan Fried.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles and creative writing.
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