Schoenberg to Sondheim: Moonlight Serenade with Louise Howlett and Albert Combrink

July 15, 2009

Louise Howlett and Albert Combrink

Louise Howlett and Albert Combrink

My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

On 19 July 2009 Louise Howlett and I will be performing in the Kirstenbosch Chamber Music Breakfast Concert Series. Our programme reflects Louise’s trademark milti-genre approach to songs inspired by Moonlight. The programme includes songs by Arnold Schoenberg, Faure, Mozart, Bizet, Dvorak, Michel Legrand, and Stephen Sondheim.

The idea of one singer encompassing styles from Mozart to Bernstein strikes some as unusual, but when one respects song for what they are, instead of evaluating them on a system of classification, one  arrives at some interesting insights. My work in the field of Tango, and the music of Piazzolla in particular, as well as recent excursions into Villa-Lobos, has taught me that the distinctions between the terms “Classical”, “Folk”, “Popular”, “World Music” and even “Jazz” are becoming increasingly blurred. Audiences are no longer judging a piece of music on whether it is a “good” classical or popular interpretaion. The demands of the media has made it possible for music-lovers to search out their own favourites. The record companies – just like the movie-moguls – can no longer predict the hits. A certain snobbery from the classical fraternity towards other music forms such as musical theathre, has also left many musicians high-and-dry. And out of work. Especially in South Africa the opera-world is fighting for survival and young musicians simply have to diversify to make a living.

I found some Youtube clips of Stephen Sondheim in masterclasses on his song “Send in the Clowns”  from “A Little Night Music” which reveals him to be as much a perfectionist as many an opera conductor. Louise and I have recorded this song and have worked hard to create an interpreation as honest and pure as a Brahms or Schubert song, but without some of the over-threatrical musical gestures that can so easily ruin this song.

Here is an interview with Sondheim discussing the song “Send in the clowns”. He comments on the emotional impact of the  shortbreathed phrases in this song of anger and regret. He stresses the need to approach performing the song from the text, from a a point of “No Singing” which arrives at the point of singing only when the emotion dictates it.

Sondheim was also a generous instructor in the performance of his material. Here he is teaching a singing student from the Guildhall School in London. And here he is teaching an acting student, also from Guildhall. His attention to expressive diction is clear. He strikes me as a wonderful man, insistent, persitent but kind.

Links to recorded clips of “Send in the Clowns”

Below I list links to some of the classic interpretations of this song – and the less successful. I hope to show that reaching an opinion of “authenticity” is a futile excercise.

“Send in the clowns” – Barbara Streissand: Streissand has owned this song for many, and she even convinced Sondheim to write her an extra verse. Her insistence truly enhanced the structure of the song, but also made it more successful as a “stand-alone” song outside of the show for which it was originally written.

“Send in the clowns” – Angela Lansbury: There is no longer a voice worth speaking of, but what a heart-felt performance.

“Send in the clowns” – Cleo Laine in which the accompaniment is focussed around sustained strings, and the arpeggiated figures are totally underplayed.

“Send in the clowns” – Elizabeth Taylor – I personally find this version unbearable, but others have commented that it is “theatrically and dramatically appropriate”. Perhaps. But not for my iPod, thanks.

Other songs from “Moonlight Serenade”

Arnold Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” op2.no.1, beautifully sung by a miss Gracova. Its atmospheric piano writing and haunting melodies conjure up the world of Sondheim’s “Night Music”. Schoenberg at one time made a living orchstrating operettas. Since  his Twelve-Tone Technique dominates writings on his work one tends to forget how important melody is to this composer, whether it uses all 12 tones of the scale or not. An interesting documentary on Schoenberg’s life in Vienna before 1900, is most informative.

The film “Yentl” yielded some excellent material, and this song by Michel Legrande is very much in the Sondheim genre.

“Papa can you hear me” Barbara Streissand

“Papa can you hear me” in the actual scene from the movie “Yentl” – Barbra Streissand

“Papa can you hear me” in an operatic misjudgement by Ewa Lewandowska. This lady has a good voice. However, she sings this song terribly.

“Memory” from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Cats” – Barbara Streissand: Again, along with Elaine Paige’s, this version sold millions of 45rpm vinyl discs long before CD’s were even invented.

“Memory” – Susan Boyle. A talented lady with a dream who deserves her shot at fame. This recording shows perhaps why she did not win.

All in all an eclectic programme then. Let the audience be the judge.

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