Friday, April 22, 2005

Bolcom & Morris in Berkeley

"Set" with a Turkish rug and a small table supporting a disproportionally large flower arrangement, UCBerkeley's Hertz Hall attempted to pass as a living room this past Monday night, and from this stage, William Bolcom and Joan Morris delivered their lecture/performance on an American Cabaret Style. The only deviation from a rather conventional song-recital format was Bolcom casually introducing each song with a brief commentary, usually calling attention to the witty, wry, or "smart" lyrics of cabaret song and attempting to differentiate it from popular song. Bolcom enthused that this deliberate emphasis on text--text with an incisive narrative element--elevates cabaret above most commercial music and appeals to a particularly educated audience. Indeed, the wild party of words in Michael John LaChiusa's "I'm a Fraud" delighted listeners as much as they frustrated Morris. But stepping confidently into the roles of strange and dramatic characters (in "Surabaya Johnny" and "Tamara, Queen of the Nile"), Morris sold many of the quirky stories (Bolcom's own "Black Max" and "George") for much more than face value. Listeners perhaps realized that a larger cultural context, be it critical or celebratory, lies at the heart of the cabaret song. Ah yes, the "smart" Berkeley audience could appreciate this: one sport-coat-wearing gentleman remarked with supreme confidence to the lady next to him, "This's for the brain."

Bolcom's points were insightful and supported by Morris' gritty performance, but the comparison to popular song seemed rather arbitrary. If one wants to make comparisons, why not cabaret song's relationship to the classical art song? How is it that the classical art song is so elevated above the cabaret song? Both genres unite singer and accompanist, giving equally virtuosic opportunity to word and music (proof: Sondheim's "Uptown, Downtown," which Bolcom played to the hilt). Are the lyrics of art songs somehow too mundane, too concerned with love, romance, and the natural world? Well then, what about Wolf's "Der Rattenfanger" and its creepy tale of the rat-killing, kid-chasing pied piper (a great match to Black Max, oo, what if the two dastards met)? Are art songs too beautifully sung, too concerned with proper phonetics and vocal tone? What of the first part of Ives' "Memories," which must be sung as fast as possible and in a less-than-beautiful, childish tone? On paper, in simple, lecture-seminar note format, one can draw many parallels between the two forms, yet the art song recital, formally presented in the concert hall, is rarely punctuated by audience laughter, and the cabaret act, more casually enjoyed as entertainment, rarely receives the attention of classical music elite. (Bolcom, at one point searching for an elusive detail of musical history, queried, "Is Richard Taruskin here?" The audience murmured, glanced around, but produced no Taruskin. Bolcom grumped good-naturedly, "Well, he should be!")

When all was sung and done, Bolcom lamented the wickedly commercial demise of Broadway (which, for a moment with Sondheim, showed possibilities of a new and developing cabaret style) but acknowledged the transition of musical theatre, and even opera, into an exciting, hybrid-cabaret form representative of modern times. This form, he mused, is likely to captivate the attention of young classical composers and performers whose skills extend far beyond the fundamentals of music, voice or piano study and include working knowledge of electronics/computer music programs as well as video. That he looks forward to observing a new generation tackle these developments reveals Bolcom's cabaret sensibility: whether as composer or performer, being aesthetically open-minded and technically flexible allows one to integrate genres. That melting-pot quality, in addition to an amplified dramatic delivery, points to a definition of cabaret as an arena of possibilities. From living room or concert hall stage, electronic or acoustic, Weill, Wolf or Ives, it just might be "American" cabaret.


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