By Kim McLarin | Tuesday, September 13, 2011
It is a truth not universally acknowledged that writers are always writing for somebody. Any writer with ego enough to desire publication has an audience in the conscious or subconscious mind during the act of creation. It is also true that this hovering audience shapes the creation as surely as the potter’s intended use for a pot shapes the clay. As Toni Morrison asked of the great novel “Invisible Man,” “Invisible to who?”
I had this thought while watching the excellent and moving adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” at the ART in Cambridge recently. According to the Playbill this production is “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” reportedly the title required by the Gershwin estate, but I am not so sure. The opera has been famously, and controversially, adapted by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray and directed by Diane Paulus, and I, for one, am grateful. Were it strictly the Gershwins’ opera, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much.
I can’t say for sure, though, because I’ve never seen "Porgy and Bess" before. Never wanted to.
I always assumed George Gershwin and his team created this grand American folk opera primarily for a white, early-twentieth century audience and that it therefore was unlikely to speak to me. What little I knew about the piece--the cringe-inducing lyrics by George Gershwin’s brother Ira and librettist DuBose Heyward (“I Got Plenty Of Nuthin’ ” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”) layered atop the sublime music, the fact that Sidney Poitier had at first refused to star in the movie version, the character description of Bess as a loose drug addict and the depiction of Porgy as deformed--did little to change my mind. Even considering that it might have been bold for the original creative team to imagine the inner lives of black people in 1935 didn’t mean I wanted to see it. Just because a portrayal is sympathetic doesn’t mean it is not also a stereotype.
All of which is to say I arrived at the ART slightly skeptical. The first few songs—the sweet and famous lullaby “Summertime” and “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”--did little to ease my worry. The crap game scene early in the first act--bare-armed black men gambling and courting violence--had me shifting in my seat.
But then the funeral scene hooked me. Here is the moment the production comes into full possession of itself. Here were people I recognized. Here was grieving and movement, gesture and sorrow, and song that I knew. Here was a witness to African-American life that felt deeply-rooted and authentic and true.
How important is such authenticity? To theatergoers who prize Gershwin’s transcendent score over all else, the African dance gestures and dead-on black church movements in the funeral scene may not mean much. Likewise, the set-up which gives context (and standard English) to Porgy’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” rescuing it from being a happy, darkey song may not greatly improve the work and the “excavation” of Bess’ character which Lori-Parks has spoken of doing may seem unnecessary or even presumptuous to some.
To me, though, these transformations allowed me to fully embrace a work I fear I may not have before. They also go a long way toward answering a question I had upon first reading about this production: Does the world really need an updated version of Porgy and Bess? Do black people?
The answer to both questions is yes. The world needs this production because Audra McDonald is a revelation. Even with Parks’ tweaking, the character of Bess still hovers at the edge of blurred, two-dimensionality but McDonald wrenches her into focus as a vulnerable and deeply flawed woman fighting hard to save herself in the only way she knows. As others have said, this is not only great singing but great acting too.
Black people need this production now because “Porgy and Bess” is a story of not only of black romantic love (which would be reason enough), but also of black community, and of the redemptive and transformative power of love.
Watching Norm Lewis’ crippled Porgy extend his hand to the beautiful Bess (and, yes, I’m glad they took him off of that damn goat cart) I tried to remember the last time we saw a story of a black man’s love for a black woman raising him to manhood and changing his life. When was that on the ART’s or any other local stage? (Heck, try to find, on broadcast or cable television right now, a black man with a black female love interest at all.) When was the last pop culture depiction that not only offered a black woman so valued and desirable that three men were willing to fight over her but, almost casually, also tossed the stories of two other solid and loving black couples into the mix?
And, yes, among a people still scarred, not only by the legacy of legalized racial oppression, but also by the present reality of racial caste and social control, manifest, among other ways, in mass incarceration of black men, any time is the right time for a story of a strong and vibrant black community.
It is not just Porgy who loves Bess. But the other characters who love as well: Clara who loves Jake, Serena who loves her husband, and Mariah and the fisherman and the preacher and the undertaker who love everyone. It is not just Porgy who will save Bess, if Bess is to be saved; it is the flawed but ultimately embracing and forgiving citizens of Catfish Row, who know that in loving and uplifting the least of them they are also saving themselves.
New England Conservatory partners with Mayor of Boston Thomas M. Menino to present a concert in remembrance of 9/11, sponsored by John Hancock Financial Services, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and BNY Mellon.
The world premiere of Illuminessence: prayers for peace, an interfaith oratorio by Silvio Amato (left), highlights the concert conducted by Benjamin Zander. The NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra with chorus and vocal soloists perform the piece, commissioned by the Vatican and which touches on the commonality of human aspiration and the universal spiritual impulse as expressed in the prayers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, along with other works.
To hear the concert, click on "Listen" above.
Benjamin Roe talks with composer Silvio Amato:
On the program:
Key: The Star-Spangled Banner
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Massenet: "Meditation" from Thaïs with violin soloist Yuki Beppu (NEC Preparatory School student)
Amato: Illuminessence: prayers for peace
chorus composed of singers from:
NEC Youth Chorale, Jonathan Richter, director
Young Men’s and Young Women’s Choruses from the
Handel & Haydn Society Vocal Apprenticeship Program,
Joseph Stillitano and Alyson Greer, directors
Kirsten Scott '08 Prep, soprano
Cristina Bakhoum '12 G.D., mezzo-soprano
Michael Kuhn, '12 M.M., tenor
Beethoven: "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9
with chorus and soloists
Classical New England brings you one of the world's great music traditions on Saturday at 9pm, as violinist Nicola Benedetti headlines the Last Night of the Proms from Royal Albert Hall in London.
The Scottish violinist burst onto the scene in 2004 as the BBC Young Musician of the Year. Now she joins conductor Jirí Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Britain's biggest musical party of the year, performing the gorgeous Violin Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch.
Also on the program, tenor Joseph Calleja brings an uncommon grace and elegance, rooted in his Maltese heritage, to arias by Verdi, Massenet, and Puccini.
The program also pays tribute to Belohlávek's Czech background as the conductor closes his tenure as Chief Conductor, with works by Antonín Dvorák and Josef Suk.
And, of course, no Last Night of the Proms would be complete without British traditions, including Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 ("Land of Hope and Glory"), Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's "Jerusalem," and "God Save the Queen."
Join Brian Newhouse at 9pm, following Classical New England's own tribute to Belohlávek with an encore broadcast of the conductor's Boston Symphony Orchestra appearance in December of 2011, beginning at 7pm.
Mark Simpson - sparks
(BBC Commission, World Premiere)
Suk - Towards a New Life
Delius - Songs of Farewell
Verdi - Un ballo in maschera: ‘Forse la soglia attinse … Ma se m’è forza perderti’
Massenet - Werther: ‘Pourquoi me réveiller?’
Bruch - Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor
Puccini - Tosca: ‘E lucevan le stelle’
Puccini - Turandot: ‘Nessun dorma’
John Williams - Olympic Fanfare and Theme
Dvorák - Overture 'Carnival'
Shostakovich - The Gadfly: Romance
Brodszky - The Toast of New Orleans: ‘Be my love’
Lara - Granada
Rodgers - Carousel: ‘You’ll never walk alone’
Henry Wood - Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Elgar - Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major ('Land of Hope and Glory')
Parry, orch. Elgar - Jerusalem
Traditional - The National Anthem
Nicola Benedetti, violin
Joseph Calleja, tenor
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jirí Belohlávek, conductor
(image of Nicola Benedetti by Simon Fowler, courtesy of Decca; image of Royal Albert Hall by Marcus Ginns)
Ralph Vaughan Williams once wrote, “The art of music, above all other arts, is an expression of the soul of a nation.”
Ten years ago, while working at NPR on a bright September morning, I felt the immediacy and poignancy of the English composer’s words first-hand.
As network journalists and producers, it was our job to report, reflect, comment, and contextualize a series of calamitous events that we could scarcely explain to ourselves. For our colleagues in the NPR newsroom the task at hand was seemingly simple and undeniably urgent. But what role could music play? Every public radio station in the country wrestled with the same question.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the newscast. The soul of the nation was in shock, and needed the therapy that only music can provide. I have chosen to follow a path in music because I feel it is unique among the arts; that is both a deeply personal experience (ask anyone around you with earbuds on), as well as an act of community (ask anyone of the 65 million Americans who have ever sung in a choir).
In those immediate days after 9/11, we witnessed abundant examples of both. For the news producers at NPR, it quickly became apparent that the interstitial music – the “connective thread” between features that are part and parcel of the public radio sound – was as important and necessary as the news itself to millions of listeners; the only way for them process such unrelentingly grim events.
That unconscious national need to come together in the concert hall was evident the first Sunday after 9/11. I will never forget producing a marathon day of memorial concerts from across the nation, a day filled with profound musical utterances, from soloists, choirs, orchestras, all seeking to “express the inexpressible”. Mozart’s searing Requiem from scarred and sooty Trinity Church in New York, hard by Ground Zero. Branford Marsalis’s plaintive soprano saxophone invoking Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday in the cavernous Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A hushed piano solo in McKeesport, Pennsylvania for the heroes of Flight 93. And, yes, a soaring, in-the-moment rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending to an Atlanta audience streaked with hot, wet tears.
It’s been said that artists are merely reporters with a longer deadline: They witness, they interpret, they create…and ultimately tell us a little bit more about ourselves. In those darkest days, I learned a lot about hope, charity, humanity and forgiveness…thanks to the transformative, healing power of music.
Join us on Sunday, September 11, for a day of reflection, commentary, and music, including live performances from Jordan Hall in Boston and our own Fraser Performance Studio, as well as highlights from commemorative concerts from Trinity Church in New York and the New York Philharmonic.
Hear Boston Baroque in Rameau's Les Indes Galantes
Click on "Listen" above. Download program information and see a slideshow from the production below.
In May of 2011, Boston Baroque and music director Martin Pearlman (left), capped off their 38th season with a production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Les Indes Galantes at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. Not exactly opera as we think of that term now, but rather an extravagent bringing-together of music, drama, and dance particular to its time, Les Indes Galantes includes lyrical music-making, spectacular tableaux, and infectious, toe-tapping dance.
The prologue sets things in motion: Hébé, goddess of youth, laments seeing the young men of Europe lured by the goddess of war’s promises of glory, and asks Cupid to go abroad, to exotic, faraway lands (“les Indes”), in search of love.
There follow four acts, each a self-contained love story: Le Turc généreux (The Generous Turk), Les Incas du Pérou (The Incas of Peru), Les Fleurs – fête Persane (The Flowers – Persian Festival), and Les Sauvages d’Amerique (The Savages of America). The libretto and music reflect Parisian society’s fascination with the New World and the Near East. For example, two Native Americans from French colonial Louisiana were brought to Paris in 1725 and performed, inspiring Rameau to write a set of harpsichord pieces called Les Sauvages, some of which he adapted here.
Tune in to Classical New England on 99.5 WCRB in Boston or 88.7 WJMF in Providence, or stream the performance here at classicalnewengland.org at 6:30pm on Sunday, Nov. 18. The cast includes sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Nathalie Paulin, tenors Aaron Sheehan and Daniel Auchincloss, and baritones Sumner Thompson and Nathaniel Watson.
Boston's own Keith Lockhart leads the BBC Concert Orchestra in classic film music by John Williams, Ennio Morricone, William Walton, and more, from an August 2011 performance at Royal Albert Hall in London during the BBC Proms.
Hear the program:
On the program:
Bernard Herrmann - Four Works (from "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Citizen Kane," "North By Northwest," and "Psycho")
Ennio Morricone - Theme from "Cinema Paradiso"
William Walton - Suite from "Henry V"
John Williams - Three Works (from "Star Wars," "Schindler's List," and "Harry Potter")
Jonny Greenwood - Three Pieces from "Norwegian Wood"
Richard Rodney Bennett - Overture, Waltz, and Finale from "The Orient Express"
John Barry - Love Theme from "Out of Africa"
John Barry and David Arnold - Music of James Bond
About the Authors
Kim McLarin Kim McLarin is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels Taming it Down, Meeting of the Waters and Jump at the Sun, all published by William Morrow. She is a former staff writer for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Greensboro News & Record and the Associated Press. McLarin has also written for TheRoot.com and Salon.com.