Happy New Year 2016! I’m sure many of my regular followers of this blog were probably beginning to think I’d abandoned it. I haven’t, but, I admit, blogging on a regular basis is not the easiest thing, especially when you want the content to be fresh and engaging (and when your family grows to include two energetic, curious, fast-running grandkids).
It’s been over a year since my last new post. I know I owe you all my “part 2” blog about the experience of conducting during THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL. I will get that done soon.
I’m motivated to write this after my annual tradition of watching the Kennedy Center Honors. I have loved this ceremony for years. So many great performances and so many great reactions from the honorees.
If you’ve never seen the ceremony, just a brief bit of background: five people are chosen to receive the honor each year, and it’s all about the performing arts – music (performance and composition), film and theatre (acting and directing), dance (dancing and choreography). The honorees get to sit in the audience as a presenter speaks directly to them, usually praising or thanking them for their body of work, followed by a short biographical film, and then some live performances highlighting their accomplishments over the years.
This year’s honorees were: Rita Moreno (acting), George Lucas (film directing and writing), Cicely Tyson (acting), Seiji Ozawa (orchestral conducting), and Carole King (singer-songwriter).
This year, there was a lot of social media buzz after Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Jerry Wexler’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”, and every word of it was well-deserved (Google it – you’ll see what I mean). But it wasn’t just Aretha’s performance that drove me to write this.
All five of the presentations during the ceremony had strong, moving, and impactful music – and four out of the five reminded me that the careers of these people had a direct influence over my musical path.
First, Rita Moreno as Anita in “West Side Story”. I first heard the music from WSS when I was thirteen years old. Back then, I was able to buy a piano/vocal book of the entire score of the Broadway version for just $9.50. I still have that score to this day. I listened to my vinyl album of that music (mainly the motion picture soundtrack, but eventually the Broadway cast album) ad nauseum – couldn’t get enough of Bernstein’s jazzy riffs (no pun intended). Forty-four years later, I can’t imagine how many times I have listened to that music in its myriad forms and arrangements – tens of thousands probably – and I’m nowhere near tired of it. I even got to conduct performances of the full Broadway version at my alma mater, Hollywood High School, in the late 70s (high school, yes, but Hollywood High shows were a cut above, easily equal to semi-pro stagings).
SIDEBAR: The theatre director at Hollywood High back in those days was a fine fellow named Jerry Melton. At first, we had a teacher/student relationship that later evolved into director/conductor as I led about half-a-dozen musicals (including “Gypsy”, “Evita”, “A Chorus Line”, and “42nd Street”) at my old stomping grounds. His daughter, Mary, like the rest of Jerry’s family, was very involved in the goings-on in the auditorium. She was about eight or nine years old when we first met. Mary’s all grown up now and she is the Editor-in-Chief for Los Angeles Magazine (she’s done OK, I guess). Click here to read a great article she wrote for the magazine about life with her good old dad and the high standards of theatre (both musical and non) at HHS back in the glory days.
Next came George Lucas and, of course, the music of “Star Wars”. John Williams’s music reintroduced the symphonic style to the world of film scores and made me want to work in film music if this was going to be the direction scores would be taking in the future.
While my friends in high school were musically interested in the latest pop and rock music of the mid-70s, I discovered Seiji Ozawa one Friday evening while channel surfing (across all 8 channels we had to choose from back then). Here was this exotic looking Japanese conductor leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony – it was my first time watching Ozawa, and my first listening to Mahler 1. It was transformative. Ozawa had long, flowing black hair (most conductors had white hair), wore a turtleneck shirt under his tuxedo jacket, wore beads around his neck, and waved his hands with more sweep and expression and romance than I had ever seen by any other conductor. Then after watching a while, I noticed something unusual – he had a music stand in front of him, and the score to the work was on the stand, but the score was shut and he never opened it. Now, many conductors would conduct from memory, not needing the score, but they would not have the music on the stand. Heck, they wouldn’t even have the stand – didn’t need it. But this little bit of theatricality added another layer of mystique to Ozawa’s performances. As I followed his career over the years, I saw that this was not a one-time thing. The orchestra librarian would walk out before each work, place the score on the stand, and make sure it was shut, showing just the cover. Ozawa was my first and most enduring classical music hero. To this day I want to grow up to be him.
And then, Carole King. Most casual fans know her from her singer-songwriter days in the 70s that started with “Tapestry”, the album that made her a superstar performer in her own right. But for many years before that album, she was a songwriter working in the Brill Building on Broadway in New York, churning out hits for solo acts and vocal groups of the 50s and 60s. She wrote most her of hits with Gerry Goffin (she the music, he the lyrics) including “Oh! Carol”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “Up On The Roof”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”. Of course, I discovered her through the “Tapestry” album which sparked in me a desire to learn how to play pop-style piano. I was never going to be a classical pianist (didn’t have the discipline to practice) but I sat for hours and hours learning how to read and play chords from lead sheets so that I could accompany the singers in junior high and high school who would sing these songs. Another great page in my musical lesson book and another vinyl album nearly worn to dust.
All of the music mentioned above was highlighted during the Kennedy Center ceremony, and though Cicely Tyson didn’t have any influence on my music choices in my life, during her part of the show, there was a stirring rendition of “Blessed Assurance” lead by CeCe Winans, Terrance Blanchard, and a student choir from Ms. Tyson’s own performing and fine arts public school.
The music throughout the night brought people to their feet and brought tears of joy to many (President Obama and myself included). I’ve often said that music is the closest thing to actual magic that there is on earth. Think about it – organized sound (with or without words to accompany) floating unseen through the air, has the ability to stir memory, arouse emotion, and build a lump in the throat.
I have been privileged for many, many years to make music and to receive music in my life, both as a student and as a professional.
May 2016, and for many years beyond, bring you the gladness, the jubilance, and the delight of music in your lives.