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Earlier reviews will be added to this archive soon.
I am not a musician, simply a music lover, and I would not have presumed to review these performances except that I was requested to do so. Please let me know if I have misrepresented musical facts; I'll correct those. And if your opinion varies from mine, there is a chance I could learn something from you. —VERN BARNET
contributed to KC ARTS BEAT
With Paul Mesner puppets,
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City
offers a streaming production of
“Amahl and the Night Visitors”
2021 January 5I vividly remember Christmas Eve, at age 9, at a friend’s house, seeing the “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” When school resumed after Christmas recess, I told my 4th grade music teacher about it and that I wished the story were true. She said it was in the Bible. I never could find it, but all these years later, as many times as I’ve seen the opera (and chuckled over the licorice in the third drawer), its story of the mystery of flawed human and unbounded divine love continues to inspire and comfort seven decades later.
“Amahl,” the first opera commissioned for TV, may not have been the beginning of my love of opera, but it is the earliest opera I clearly remember. It is short (one act), clever, comic, solemn, touching, simple, with music and a libretto so perfectly matching the magic of the season than even atheist and Christian friends who say they have no use for opera reported after I urged them to see “Amahl” that they were touched. Both my Christian and atheist friends told me they were moved to tears.
The story is of Amahl, a “crippled” boy with a rich imagination, and his mother in poverty living in the Holy Land. He was a shepherd until his mother had to sell the sheep. One night three kings, following a star, stop by their shack to rest, and Amahl and his mother learn about the birth of a spiritual king.
The kings are not haughty, even though one lives in a “marble palace with black panthers and white doves.” They, seekers of a holy child, are grateful for the hospitality which expands with gifts from shepherds whom Amahl alerts and who entertain the kings with their dances. Kaspar is a bit deaf and travels with a box, one drawer of which contains magic stones. In one of the opera’s most poignant moments, Amahl remembers the box and asks the king, “Among your magic stones, is there . . . is there one that could cure a crippled boy?” Kasper responds, “Eh?” and Amahl, discouraged, wishes him “good night.”
As the kings rest, the mother tries to steal gold from the kings, but the kings explain that the child they seek will rule without earthy riches. Repentant, the mother returns the gold and says she wishes she could send a gift of her own to the child they describe. Amahl, too, is inspired and offers the only thing he has, his crutch, which he himself made. As he offers the crutch, he discovers he can walk without it, and all rejoice at his healing. Amahl wants to go with the kings to take his thanks and his gift to the child, and the kings and even the widow agree.
The opera was composed by Gian Carlo Menotti, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He also wrote the English libretto. Surely one of the reasons my opera-aversive friends found this opera so easy to listen to is Menotti’s complete mastery of parlando, a vocal line shaped by the pacing and accents of ordinary speech. (I use parlando instead of recitative to emphasize the appearance that Menotti’s music grows out of the poetry instead of, in the case of inartful recitative, being pitches on which words are hung.)
“Amahl” is actually a good choice for someone wishing to learn about opera because it includes traditional forms such as arias (solo songs), duets, trios, a quartet, a chorus, and even dancing. And like all good opera, it is worth seeing repeatedly, in various productions. So, with one reservation, I happily recommend the Lyric Opera’s video streaming production with Paul Mesner Puppets as an introduction to opera as well for as the blessing of the opera itself. This is 50 minutes you do not want to miss.
In fact, the “Amahl” package comes with an engagement guide and materials for educators. In this time when education is about getting a job instead of emotional intelligence, instead of being a citizen with a life full of relationships and meaning, the arts are more important than ever. Opera is a complex art form, and this Lyric Opera offering adds newer communication arts to vocal and instrumental music, poetry, dance, staging, costuming, scenery, and other vehicles of expression. In this case, we have puppets as actors. Yes, opera is refined music, but in an unexpected way, this production shows it is much more.
My reservation about the production is that viewers are repeatedly distracted from the story and the magic of the puppets by shots of the musicians and the chamber in which the puppet stage is housed. I think this would be especially confusing to younger children. I will not accept as defense citation of Igmar Bergman’s 1975 film of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” or the Metropolitan Opera’s cinema broadcasts of interviews of performers and others involved with production in between acts. The Lyric’s interruptions do not in any way supplement the opera, but rather remove us from its progress. The problem occurs from the beginning. When Amahl is gesturing to his mother about how long the star’s tail is, we are cut from the puppet’s gesture to the singer’s off stage. The intrusions mar the integrity of an otherwise meritorious offering to what should be a large audience.
I also remain a bit perplexed at the revision of Amahl’s telling his mother that “the kings are three, and one of them is black.” “Black Lives Matter” remains a major news story, but “black” was erased and substituted with “one of them looks like me.” Menotti emphasized that his opera was inspired by the painting, “Adoration of the Magi,” by Hieronymus Bosch, and one of the kings is emphatically black. As sung in this performance, there was no surprise; the line was almost dropped vocally, as if in embarrassment.
Menotti specified that Amahl should be sung by a boy. He did not write what, in opera-speak, is called a “trouser role,” that is a high male part sung by a woman. I cannot say that had I only heard the streaming production that I would have been sure Menotti’s instructions were violated. Holly Ladage, in fact, did often sound like maybe a boy, and I guess this should be regarded as success. But somehow I think a boy would have known to exclaim “Outside the door . . . there is . . . a king with a crown!” instead of merely stating a fact.
While I was delighted with the clarity of the chamber orchestra, I really, really missed the unique sound of the oboe in Menotti’s original score. Almost instantly, the opening strains on Keith Stanfield’s violin and other instrumentalists transported me another time and place under the stars. Maybe the tempo of Amahl’s “Don’t cry, mother dear” was a little slow, but otherwise Piotr Wisniewski’s conducting was crisp, with wonderful little sonic surprises in percussion and electronic keyboard.
Kelly Morel as Amahl’s mother was especially effective as she contemplating stealing the gold. She helped us feel desperation as she asked if rich people could know “how a child could be fed.”
Daniel Belcher was superb as King Melchior, whose enunciation, even though the video is captioned, underlines the truth in Menotti’s poetry, as here, when the mother has been discovered stealing:
Oh, good woman, you may keep the gold.Most operas seem to have some problems with story continuity, and so does “Amahl” if you look too closely. Further, now that our culture better understands the evil of corporal punishment, we have to overlook the question of the threats Amahl receives from his mother. Still, the religious and economic testimony in the passage just cited over balance the threats as an understandable ignorance of the past.
We expect miracles from Paul Mesner puppets, and we got them in the execution of everything from Amahl’s removing his cap to the display of King Kaspar’s travel box to the mother’s theft of the gold. (I do wish the bandage on Kaspar’s finger had been more visible when he answered Amahl’s question whether the parrot could bite.)
But the part that made the child in me thrill was when Amahl’s leg was healed before our eyes. I think this was one time, at least, when the puppeteering outdid a live performance.
My first viewing of “Amahl” in 1951 was the first Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. (It was broadcast annually on NBC until 1966). It cost me and millions viewing it nothing. I wish philanthropy somehow had made this new production of this uplifting opera brilliantly presented available without charge to everyone far and wide, but the $40 ticket price may help keep the Lyric afloat. Beyond your own purchase, if you can, consider buying tickets for friends as a small act of philanthropy, and valorize them with your gift.
A quarter century after I first saw “Amahl,” I was a pastor in Pennsylvania, considering career moves. I finally accepted an invitation from Kansas City over other options, in part because I thought a city that offered the world such a profound and beautiful program in “Amahl”might be a good place to live.
I’ve seen “Amahl” many times, including a live performance with the son of a friend singing Amahl so convincingly just before his voice changed that I thought opera might be his career. But until now, I’ve never seen it done with puppets. I made the right choice to move to Kansas City, and the adaptability and resourcefulness of the Lyric and the ever-amazing Paul Mesner puppets are fresh justification for my choice of this city, with arts here overflowing with such works of humanity so marvelous that we can glimpse divinity. The management, the creative team for this production, and all involved have given us a touch of love in the midst of the darkness of the pandemic. Perhaps the longings that the kings and Amahl and his mother feel come to us as a hint of healing and a taste of salvation we especially need now.
The Lyric’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” streams through January 31; $40; kcopera.org.
Lyric Opera clip)
This review quoted by the San Francisco Symphony —
contributed to KC
On May 23, 1996, as soon as my son and I landed in San Francisco to celebrate his sixteenth birthday, we went to Davies Symphony Hall to get tickets for that night's performance of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. We wanted to hear the new music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, who was completing his first season there. MTT (as he is known) has since become the longest-tenured music director at any major American orchestra, and last night he and the SF Symphony made one last stop in Kansas City before he retires next year for other projects. So it was an extraordinary treat for me to get to hear him both coming and going.
The Harriman Jewell program at Helzberg Hall, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, attracted a full house for the visiting artists.
Both works on the first half of the program, the Ravel and the Mozart, concluded, after all of us having a very good time, with a happy, almost casual hand-shake that contrasted with the cloud-bursting majesty of the final work by Sibelius.
Perhaps best known for his later Bolero tour de force, Maurice Ravel explored the styles and forms of the French baroque, epitomized by François Couperin, in a six movement suite for solo piano. The title Le Tombeau de Couperin (“The Tomb of Couperin”) was a conventional way of honoring a musical heritage, with movements memorializing WWI dead. Later Ravel orchestrated — one might say “colored” — the four movements we heard Thursday night. (Ravel’s most famous orchestration of a work for piano is surely Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.)
MTT infused the liquid Prélude with shimmer and shine. The Forlane was a dance so jaunty you wanted to join in. Despite the title of the Minuet, it invited meditation or daydreams. The Rigaudon was a public party in a city square.
The second work of the evening was the most popular of the five Mozart violin concerti, No. 3 in G Major, performed with Christian Tetzlaff. I thought there were rough spots in the bowing of the Allegro, and I was disappointed in the unexpansive cadenza (just over one minute). In the Adagio Mozart replaces the oboes with the hues of the flutes, and with that backing Tetzlaff gave us one of the sweetest of the all composer’s melodies, tenderly offered. But again, the cadenza, this time under 50 seconds, was too short for me, and as undistinguished as the first. The last movement was a rondo marked Allegro, with Tetzlaff’s good energy and humor.
The audience assessed Tetzlaff’s performance more enthusiastically than I did and demanded an encore. He obliged with a Bach movement.
After the intermission, on his way to the podium, MTT stopped to check the music on the concertmaster’s stand as if to be sure what the third and final work on the program was. Which was wise since there was no score ready from which MTT could conduct. Which was just fine because MTT had the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major memorized. Which, as the performance soon proved, MTT owns.
Although the Sibelius has been a life-long favorite of mine, its opening motif has remained a mathematical puzzle to me. In 6/4 meter, the first movement opens with strings on the fifth beat of the first measure, with five F-sharp quarter notes, then three G quarter notes, then three A quarter notes, all 11 marked tenuto, placing us at once in a mysterious realm where a new kind of logic pervades. From the woodwinds, oboes respond pointedly and then horns soften the atmosphere, with conversation continuing until clarinets agree and the flutes comment; then the bassoons signal the timpani, and then the strings return. My point is that the colors of sounds overwhelmed mere numeracy as they, by patch and tract, revealed something heroic growing organically upwards to the sun which, as the first movement ends, at last shone on the simple motif with which the movement began.
While MTT led every soloist and section of the orchestra to bloom, I especially appreciated the luxurious sound of the seventy members of the string section which MTT fully employs as Sibelius must have wished in this exquisitely textured movement and in the entire work.
With timpani, a cloud appears as the second movement begins; and we are helpless, at times assaulted; and promises of relief are repeatedly withdrawn. Some repair might be available, and the spirit revives, only to see the full scope of the tragedy of which we are a part. In this movement MTT’s interpretation merits special praise as he lengthened pauses and deepened the sonorities of pathos and resolution and even reverence.
The Third Movement pulls us forward energetically but then we pause for an oboe solo meditation, transformed by flutes and strings into sorrow. Without pause we are into the Fourth Movement with a taste of triumph. But we return to a struggle for the portal of heaven wherein we gaze upon, but do not enter, the sublime beauty. Ascending and descending woodwinds remind us of every step we have taken, of every rung of the ladder up and down, repeatedly, until, when joined by the brass, the sun shines and we are reconciled with all the world in a glistening glory.
This music is a sum of the human drama, austere, sensuous, failing and noble, broken and whole. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony brought us more than springtime on March 21. We were given a vision beyond seasons, beyond years: the very character of time itself.
The encore was a delightful going-home confection, an excerpt featuring woodwinds from the Tchaikovsky Orchestral Suite No. 1. Many folks stayed for a brief Q&A with MTT and Tetzlaff arranged by Harriman Jewell.
contributed to KC Arts Beat
March 10, 2019 190310
“A CIRCLE OF FIFTHS”
Alexander Melnikov plays the rarely performed
24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich at the Folly
If you are not a pianist or unusually lucky, you may not be familiar with the “24 Preludes and Fugues” by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). The complete set is seldom performed. But if good luck strikes, you will fall in love with them I did Sunday afternoon as Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov played them at the Folly as part of the Friends of Chamber Music Muriel McBrien Kauffman Master Pianist Series. Two hundred years after Bach’s death, Shostakovich composed Opus 87 in 1950-51, between his 4th and 5th String Quartets and before his 10th Symphony, during the second “denunciation” by the Soviets.
It is tempting to listen to Shostakovich with such biographical and political ghosts purporting extra-musical meaning. In this case, the evident subject of this sequence — a “circle of fifths” comprising every major and minor key of the chromatic scale — may be music itself. But this is not a mere technical or academic demonstration of the composer’s skill and wit. It is also, to use the word that is the Friends’ theme this season, “transcendent.”
Cynthia Siebert, president of The Friends, said that this work may be the most important 20th Century work for the solo piano, an instrument vastly different from Bach’s keyboard. Melnikov, who performed from a color-highlighted score, at times reminded me not only of the clavier, but also a xylophone, a carillon, and a harpsichord. The extraordinary dynamic range Melnikov produced, and the subtle pacing and phrasing, invited the rapt audience into the reverence he has for the work.
The opening Prelude and Fugue in C was a lazy summer afternoon, and betokened nothing of the chase of No. 2, the Prelude in A Minor or the following fugue romp which sounded like a quotation in every other measure. The program notes identified the Symphony No 4, and I wonder if he took snatches from other places as well.
I’m not smart enough to catch many of the musical allusions Shostakovich makes to Bach and others, but I was particularly struck by the Prelude in F# Minor (#8) with its klezmer twists, followed by a dark and unrelenting fugue, and it was hard for me not to think of the then-recent Jewish suffering, beyond the formality of pure music. (And I thought ahead to his Symphony No. 13 with its use of the famous Yevtushenko poem, “Babi Yar.”)
The final Prelude in D Minor begins with a declaration of assurance but quiets at measure 31 to introduce the first of the double fugue subjects to follow. At measure 112 of the Fugue itself, the second, contrasting subject is introduced, and at measure 218, with the two subjects joined, Melnikov almost elevated me out of my chair. At measure 261 marked Maestoso, and especially by measure 283, and even more in the last three measures of the afternoon, Melnikov brought together an insistent dignity that transformed what could have been a pleading instead into a transcendent call — not only across the centuries but within the full meaning of human struggle. The fugue began as a shoot from the ground and became the axis mundi.
T.S. Eliot called for poets to preserve the art of the past, and thus to extend and improve the language of the day. Whether or not Shostakovich was thinking along parallel lines when he composed this tribute to the “Well-Tempered Clavier,” we are not only directed back to the baroque master but also brought forward into fresh musical experience.
From- NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER
Fall Books [page 1]
September 6, 1996
HOLY CITY, UNHOLY HISTORY
By VERN BARNET
["The Rev. Vern Barnet is minister in residence at the World Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Study in Kansas City, Mo., and writes a religion column for The Kansas City Star."]
When David united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, he wanted a neutral place claimed by neither for his capital. So he took Jerusalem. He respected its Jebusite inhabitants, kept their city administration and honored their sacred sites. Karen Armstrong laments that as the 3,000th anniversary of that event is being celebrated this year, Israel has not measured up to his example."
Jerusalem is shamed by the expropriation of others' lands, denial of human rights, rejection of international law and assaults on sacred places by Israelis and by the murder of an Israeli prime minister by a fellow Jew. It is also shamed by Christians whose bitter quarrels among themselves persist today even at the holiest shrine of that faith, the Holy Sepulcher Church, where a Muslim family keeps the keys because none of the various Christian groups that use the church trusts the other Christians to let them in when it is their turn. It is shamed by Muslim violence that strikes from the occupation camps and lurks within groups like Hamas.
The city is holy to the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But instead of inspiring the highest spirituality, it often has generated violence and tragedy. The crusaders, for example, exulted in massacre as a triumph of Christianity. One eyewitness, noting piles of Jewish and Muslim heads, hands and feet, wrote that
"in the Temple and the Porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies." Armstrong writes, "Overnight the crusaders had turned the thriving and populous city of Jerusalem into a stinking charnel house."
As Armstrong gives us the history of the city, she asks what goes wrong when believers desire to possess a physical symbol of the sacred more than the sacred itself.
When the children of Israel sought the Promised Land, they carried the Ark of the Covenant with them. Solomon ended this divine portability by building a Temple in Jerusalem on what probably had been a site sacred to the god Baal. The Temple so overshadowed other holy places that when it was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., most Jews felt their world had ended.
Yet this catastrophe led to a new creativity. In exile they rediscovered that God's glory needs no fixed abode. The home became the temple. One could respect the Torah, the law, at all times and places. More important than Temple ritual is compassion. The physical city laid waste, Jerusalem became a symbol of inner holiness.
Later, after Herod's Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Sabbath met God in consecrated time rather than sacred space. Mystics developed a conception of an indestructible heavenly Jerusalem whose temple could be reached by an inner 'aliyah,' ascent.
The physical possession of Jerusalem and its sites was not so important. Until the 16th century, the Western Wall remaining from Herod's Temple had no particular interest to the Jews. In the 20th century, most early Zionists offered no devotion to the Western Wall either. But when Jordan annexed Jerusalem in 1948, the wall was no longer accessible to Israelis. In 1967 the Israelis broke into the Old City and the soldiers aimed for what had become the holiest place in the Jewish world.
Nonetheless, the claim made today that Jews have a right to Jerusalem is not grounded historically [Jews did not "get there first"], theologically [the truest Jerusalem is a spiritual reality] or morally [throwing others out of their homes is hardly compassionate].
Ironically, Jewish life in Jerusalem was most secure under Muslim rule. Those who say "Muslims and Jews have been fighting forever" do not know history. Byzantine Christians had expelled Jews from Jerusalem, so Jews welcomed the Muslims in 638, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim leader Umar accepted Jerusalem and ordered no killing, expulsion, expropriation or desecration, and no efforts to convert Christians or Jews, who were now protected. Jerusalem flourished.
In 688, a successor to Umar commissioned the famous Dome of the Rock. Later it was thought that Muhammad ascended from the Rock to heaven after his night journey.
In 1099, the first Crusade expelled Jews and Muslims from the Holy City and brought Jerusalem under Christian control again. When Saladin appeared in 1187, Christian Jerusalem surrendered and Saladin took no revenge. Muslims were amazed to see wealthy Christians leaving without helping the Christian poor. Saladin invited Jews back to the city. Later, Suleiman [1520-66] enabled Jews to hold government posts.
Jerusalem is the third-holiest city for Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and Muslims originally prayed facing Jerusalem. Unlike Judaism, whose idea of holiness is based on separateness, Islam sees holiness arising from inclusiveness. Perhaps this explains why, despite some severe lapses, the Muslims generally brought a better practice of holiness to the city than the others.
Early Christians rejected the idea of holy places. The Jerusalem Temple Holy of Holies could be entered only by the high priest and only once a year. When Jesus died, the Temple veil separating the Holy of Holies was torn asunder. Now everyone could have access to the holy in the person of Jesus. Paul took the new religion from Jerusalem to the world. Jerusalem was despised as the guilty city that killed the savior.
Christians, however, argued about Jesus. In the fourth century, the party of Arius said that because God was revealed to us in Jesus, holy places were unnecessary. The belligerent Athanasius understood Christ differently. Constantine resented quibbling within the faith he adopted for the Roman Empire in 313 C.E. He enthusiastically accepted a proposal from an Athanasian to demolish the Temple of Aphrodite in Jerusalem in order to unearth the Tomb of Christ said to be buried beneath it. A rock tomb discovered two years later was declared to be the sepulcher of Christ.
The ensuing excitement in Jerusalem assured the triumph of the Athanasian doctrine in the Nicene Creed, set a precedent for the Christian desecration of nonChristian sites and prepared the way for the crusader preoccupation with Jerusalem, which continued until science dislodged Jerusalem from the center of the Christian universe.
But sentiment remains. Jerusalem the city of Christ's death and resurrection, captures the mind perhaps more readily than his teachings. Viewing what is said to be his tomb is easier than following his example. Possessing the city has been desired more than being possessed by his Spirit.
If Jerusalem is a sacred city, why has it fostered so much self-righteousness, hatred and killing? Can a city so profaned really be holy? Who would want to claim that Jerusalem embodies one's highest ideals? The reader might wonder if Jerusalem is cursed or the work of the devil.
To guide our thinking about holy sites, Armstrong draws on Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of thc sacred. But the theological equipment she provides is too slender and too political. She shows that neither Jews nor Christians originally considered Jerusalem holy, but as they sought to prove and define themselves against others, it became so. She documents how Jerusalem has been used to confirm religious identity within the three faiths but fails to examine whether these faiths are right to encourage this lust for identity.
Consider a contrary view, say from Buddhism: Clinging inevitably causes suffering, and the most harmful form of clinging is the desire for identity. The squabbles over keys, the invention of supposed relics and the fanatical wars for the city itself may arise not because the city is holy but because the three faiths cannot offer or practice a perspective beyond a pathological concentration on their identities. If Jerusalem could become a city that embraced compassion over cruelty and openness over identity, then it might become holy.
[in sidebox] - "Armstrong asks what goes wrong when believers desire to possess a physical symbol of the sacred more than the sacred itself."
CHICAGO LITERATRY REVIEW * Summer, 1968
Hair, (LSO1143), (LSO1150), RCA Victor,
Hair has been called the most exciting musical to hit Broadway since Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. It is not surprising, then, that RCA Victor seems unable to keep the record shops supplied with the original cast album – either of them. For there are two “original cast” recordings, one (LSO 1143) produced when Hair opened Joseph Papp's Public Theatre last year, and the second (LSO 1150) from the present incarnation at the Biltmore. I saw Hair when it was still underground, before it underwent the changes to appeal to the prurient interests of the over-thirty audiences which now flock to and applaud a less than honest Broadway production.
So though your record shop is apologetic about having only the first first recording, grab it and risk disappointing your friends because you failed to purchase the “unexpurgated” version. The stodgy New York Times finds the second album superior to the first; but in fact, the second is heavy-handed, artificial, and grossly commercial, as only a commercial hippie product can be. It is unfortunate that James Rado (who with Gerome Ragni wrote the lyrics) replaces Walker Daniels as Claude in the new production. The title song “Hair,” for example, is a natural ornament for any head in the first recording; in the second, Rado sings as if his “Hair” were a compulsive toupee.
Though the play is billed as an “American tribal love-rock musical,” composer Galt MacDermot has not written much genuine rock; he has mainly substituted guitars for the traditional Broadway orchestra. As a play about war (the Revolutionary, the Civil, the Vietnam), sex (all kinds), civil rights (including miscegenation), drugs, the draft, education, the generation gap, astrology, air and water pollution, Eastern religions, and space travel, Hair is a landmark in our generation’s attempt to escape a manifesto; as music, Hair, by recognizing recent folk and rock developments in popular music, simply legitimizes the use of “rock” in theatre and fails to reach the standard of innovation achieved by, say, Gershwin in Porgy and Bess.
The best song is the hymn “Ain't Got No – I got Life” which begins the first album. The male leads sings what they ain't got (and the chorus comments): no pot (busted!) no faith (Catholic!), no soap (dirty!), no job (lazy!) , no good (good!), no TV (honest?!), no sleep (high!), no books (lovely!), no sex (ugly). After an extended and pleasant catalog in this fashion, Mother 1947 asks, “What have you got, 1967, that makes you so damn superior and gives me such a headache?” The inevitable and cleanly optimistic and profoundly religious response: “I got life, mother; laughs, sister; freedom, brother; I got good times, man; . . I got headaches and toothaches and bad times, too, like you. I got my Hair, my head, my tits, my ass . . . . I got life.”
The honesty, frankness, and openness of the play is joyously captured
on the first disk, nowhere better illustrated than in Shelley Plimpton's
disarmingly corny “Frank Mills:” “If you see him, tell him that I don't
want the two dollars back, just him.”
While these days it's fashionable if not politically obligatory for liberals like myself to accept anything black, I can now admit that I just don't find much soul music worth listening to – an opinion kept private until buttressed by the release of “Country Joe and the Fish: Together” (Vanguard VSD 79277). The first cut on the disk is “Rock and Soul Music,” a mock tribute to James Brown. The Fish have “discovered” in soul a great new beat (Bam), and they play it, once (Bam), twice (Bam Bam), thrice (Bam, Bam, Bam). This is the best satire on bad popular music since Peter Paul and Mary's “Dog Blue.”
The cut that has seen most aired is “The Harlem Song,” a commercial, much more successful as music and comment than the LSD advertisement in the first Fish album. David Cohen's spoken introduction is in flawless travelogue diction. He says:
Glorious, breath-taking, spectacular! Relax in the grandeur of America's yesteryear – Harlem, land of enchanting contrasts, where the romantic past touches the hands of the exciting present. First, the pleasure of being received with warmth and genuine hospitality, the easy adjustment to the comfort and style of superb meals, exotic beverages, colorful entertainment, and dynamite action.
The music is in a pleasant Hawaiian-country style, broken with an interlude of conversation on the street, itself perfect in stereotypic dialect. “I was havin' a good meal of wat'rmel'n and hom'ly grits... “ The musical phrasing of “Harlem Song” is immaculate, as if to contrast with the mess suggested at the end of the ad: “If you can't go to Harlem, maybe you'll be lucky and Harlem will come to you.”
The “Good Guys-Bad Guys Cheer” illustrates the futility of the good-bad guy polarity, and the consequent confusion that accompanies insistent and persistent side-taking. The “Cheer” leads into “The Streets of Your Town” (New York), in which the striking phrase, “The subway is not the underground” carries more weight the first time you hear the song than on repeated playings.
The final cut, “An Untitled Protest,” is a rock recitative. The subject is Vietnam, and perhaps more effective in its quiet way than the earlier Fish “I-Feel-Like-I'm Fixin'-To-Die Rag.” The new protest is conceived in personal rather than political terms; and, as in the quatrain below, the satire is not raucous but sad,
Superheros fill the skies,
The new Fish record is the group's most successful album as social comment, but it falls short of the high achievement in the earlier “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” in purely musical terms. The new record has no music that can compare with “Flying High” or “Lorraine.” Instead, the emphasis on the novelty song rock of which the Fish are capable. “Waltzing in the Moonlight,” for instance, is a tortured flamenco with dull chord progressions and a bromidic use of the Spanish style. One vocalist’s “Away Bounce My Bubbles” is often and indefensibly off-pitch. The electronic tricks in “Susan” are annoying. Some of the organ playing in this album is good, however, especial in “Bright Suburban Mr. And Mrs. Clean Machine,” where, before we get to the third floor, “underwear, Barbie dolls, war toys, plastic artificial flowers . . ,” we hear the gospel tabernacle sound – it never sounded as good! The most interesting song musically is “Catacean,” which has several distinguished solos. But the song is just beginning when it ends, “Open the door and love walks in; close the door and you're alone again.”
Mr. Barnet is a graduate student at the Meadville Theological School.
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Crescat scientia, vita excolator — Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched. — University of Chicago motto