Music For Midsummer’s Eve

Today is Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden. Held each year around the summer solstice, Midsummer festivities have roots in ancient pagan rituals. With countryside bonfires and maypole dances, Swedes and other Scandinavians mark the beginning of a brief period of warmth and extended daylight after many dark, cold months. This time of year, in northern Sweden the sun never sets, while in the south it sets for only an hour or two. Midsummer’s Eve in …

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Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, the American composer and lyricist, celebrates his 87th birthday today. Last summer, there were rumors that a new Sondheim show, currently in the “workshop” phase, would open this year, off-Broadway. With or without a new work, Sondheim’s contribution to American musical theater is undeniable. With Sondheim, the modern, plot-driven musical (a genre which emerged with Jerome Kern’s 1927 Show Boat and matured with Rodgers and Hammerstein) reached its zenith. Sondheim scores such …

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Who Needs Trumpets?

Last weekend, I played for a wedding which included a stirring two-trumpet fanfare. This was followed immediately by an outdoor Richmond Symphony concert which featured John Williams’ main title music for Star Wars. Both occasions reminded me of the trumpet’s deeply celebratory and heroic connotations. Listen to another classic John Williams film score, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and you’ll hear how clearly the trumpet evokes the personality of the film’s protagonist: adventurous, heroic, impetuous, and slightly …

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Re-Imagining Sondheim on the Composer’s 86th Birthday

Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim turned 86 yesterday. His contributions include the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), and music and lyrics for A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Into the Woods (1987), and numerous other groundbreaking shows. His sophisticated, envelope-pushing musicals will almost certainly rank among the Broadway theater’s most enduring works. Sondheim’s genius has always gone beyond “songwriting” in the Tin Pan Alley (or even Andrew Lloyd Webber) sense. Writing stand-alone commercial hits has …

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Music of Romantic Obsession

From Vincent Van Gogh to Charlotte Brontë, artists, writers, and composers have occasionally entered the strange, darkly irrational world of romantic obsession. With Halloween approaching, let’s take a walk on the creepy side and explore three pieces which grew out of (what some would call) unhealthy romantic obsessions: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique Written partially under the influence of opium, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique takes us into strange, hallucinogenic territory. It summons new sounds from the orchestra, which must …

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The Road Not Taken

The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the …

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The Ladies Who Lunch

Legendary Broadway performer Elaine Stritch passed away last week at the age of 89. She may be best remembered for her performance of the song, The Ladies Who Lunch in the original 1970 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy, Company.  Company offers a psychological look at the nature of relationships and marriage. It eviscerates the musical theater’s traditional escapism, replacing it with a healthy dose of realism. The song Sorry-Grateful contains the searing line, “You’ll always be …

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