Contralto Sondra Gelb in Recital

      The beautiful sanctuary of Christ and St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Sunday, March 7, 2004 was the setting for a recital with unique selections of art song by Sondra Gelb. In her deep, rich contralto voice she opened her program with Two Monodies by Giovanni Legrenzi (1625-1690), who was the choirmaster of St. Mark's in Venice. Quandodolce e quell' ardore and ad altro amante in seno are love songs of great passion and with rich low notes that lent themselves to ornamentation, well executed by our vocalist. Michael Murphy did a fine job accompanying Ms. Gelb on the lute.

     Four songs by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), with Charles Woodward at the piano, followed. Ms. Gelb gave an assured performance of Das irdische Leben (The Earthly Life), Aus! Aus! (Out! Out!), Nicht wiedersehen (Never to meet again) and Selbstgefühl (Self confidence). Drawing on her experience in opera and musical theater, she used her face, body and hands to create these characters and their loves, sorrows and pain. The lyrical moments and extroverted bombast were all there in the piano and in her fine interpretation.

      Next on the program was Let Us Garlands Bring, five songs on texts by Shakespeare set by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). From the exuberance of Who is Sylvia to the pathos of Come away, come away death, this cycle, written for baritone, was very effective. Fear no more the heat of the sun, which ends with the words "come to dust", and beautifully placed low notes and O Mistress Mine and It was a lover and his lass gave a variety of challenges to the pianist and singer. I especially enjoyed the pieces with slower tempos which allowed us to savor the sound of this rare voice.

      The last set, Cinco Canciones Negras (1945), was written by the Catalan Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge (b.1911). In an attempt to break away from stereotypical Catalonian music he created a style known as "West Indian" which seeks to view the world through the eyes of children. The style has an immediacy and charm, a sublime artlessness. What a joy to hear these sensual texts brought to life with such verve. The rhythms created in the piano were enchanting for the listeners and most demanding for Mr. Woodward. Cuba Dentro de un Piano (Cuba on a keyboard) is a gentle protest of Cuba becoming Americanized. Of course Fidel Castro came later and changed all that. Punto de Habanera (A humorous flirtation) is a bawdy song about a Creole girl in a white crinoline walking by the docks with sailors watching. Chevere has a disturbing verismo energy. The lullaby Cancion de cuna para dormer a un negrito (Cradle song) was followed by Canto negro, a feverishly paced tale of dancing where the singer used her whole body to ride through this song.

      At encore time Ms. Gelb exclaimed "Opera is so much easier than this!" and gave us The Mad Song from The Mad Show by Stephen Sondheim. She later told us that the Broadway musical is her first love. Her dramatic sense served this song well.

Sondra Gelb presents an Evening of Sondheim

Sondra Gelb was billed as a New York City Opera veteran and voice instructor in the first program of a new series at the Simon Family JCC “saluting the world's most honored Jewish composers” on December 2, 2009. For this evening, titled Simply Sondheim, she was organizer, MC and vocalist in half of the fifteen songs. My attraction to Stephen Sondheim above other Broadway composers is that his intricate lyrics of great wit intrigue and engage my mind and Ms. Gelb has great timing to communicate nuance of meaning by voice, facial expression and gesture.

The other Players were Marilyn Kellam, a local recitalist and Virginia Opera Chorus member; Anna Womble, an up-and-coming coloratura soprano; Cantor and tenor Wally Schachet-Briskin of Ohef Sholom Temple and pianist Charles Woodward, one of Tidewater’s busiest accompanists who is also music director of Ohef Sholom.

Ms. Gelb wove Sondheim's biography into introductions to the songs. Born March 22, 1930 in New York City, he studied at Williams College and later privately with Milton Babbitt. The most important influence of his young life was Oscar Hammerstein II, a neighbor from summers in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. At age eleven his parents split-up and he was mentored by Hammerstein who gave him musical theater writing assignments, critiquing his work without condescension (NY Times, 2006). He learned theater craft in the summer of 1947 as a gopher on Allegro, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that flopped. “It's really educational to see a group of experienced professionals put on a show that doesn't work” was Sondheim's comment in the same New York Times article.

At the beginning of his career he wrote texts for other composers: Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), Jule Styne's Gypsy (1959), Shevelove and Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) and Rogers' Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965, Hammerstein had died in 1963). The first selection of the evening, Invocation, sung by The Players, was written as the opening number for Forum but not used. It was eventually used by Sondheim in The Frogs (1974). This seems a good place to note that songs written for one musical often show up in another, sometimes in more than one other show.

Ms. Gelb's first solo was the popular Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music), made famous by Judy Collins. Ms. Kellam sang The Girls of Summer, all about the girls being undone by the sun and touched by the moon, unlike the singer who has no fun and is blue. Poignant! Ms. Womble sang the funny tune Lovely from Forum and later Green Finch and Linnett Bird (Sweeny Todd) in her beautiful, powerful voice.

Speaking of Sweeny Todd, it is one of the darkest, grimmest stories in all of musical theater history, a tale of revenge that leads to murder, cannibalism and corruption. We are fascinated by what our fellow humans can do and Sondheim has plumbed the depths of the human soul. From the same play Cantor Schachet-Briskin sang Johanna, a love song, almost a lullaby, to his beloved. In his early work Sondheim followed in the footsteps of Hammerstein who occasionally touched on issues like racism and other social problems. You've Got to be Carefully Taught (South Pacific) gently speaks to the rampant racism of the time. But as Sondheim has found his own voice he has demonstrated that commercial Broadway can support something besides “witless pop operas and corporate cooker-cutter confections” as Chip Brown put it in a Smithsonian magazine aricle in August, 2000. The Cantor has a gentle, 1960's aura about him but made us fully aware of what a theater animal he is when he sang Everybody Says Don't (from Anyone Can Whistle) and he went on making the point in I Remember (Evening Primrose).

In that Smithsonian article Chip Brown speaks of his near-mystical conversion experience which came when he heard Another Hundred People (Company) (we heard it sung for us by Ms. Gelb), “a kind of awakening at the end of a protracted adolescence into the beginnings of adulthood with its cultivated ironies, bittersweet pleasures and continually more complex forms of folly.”

My conversion song was Send in the Clowns. I had listened to the song for years but at one point, single again and almost forty and looking back on missed connections, I identified deeply and knew it was my song. Events moved on but I had learned to listen for Sondheim's profundities. Dr. Kellam had the last word: Loving You (Passion) is about how someone's love for you can crack you open.

The many facets of human reactions are in the songs: from Barcelona (Company) in which she's going, he wants her to stay, she decides to stay, and he sings “O God!” as his reaction, sung by Ms. Gelb and Cantor Wally. Or Losing My Mind, powerfully sung by Ms. Gelb. The woman thinking she is in love sees the beloved other sliding further away. Years ago my musical mentor sent me a recording of Into the Woods. All the characters from nursery rhymes are all grown up now and they encounter each other in the woods as adults with all the complexities of contemporary adulthood. From this show comes Children Will Listen. With Sondheim there is a genuinely mature exploration of our time in history. We listen, we feel and are richer for having done so. Thanks to all The Players, so talented, so eager to communicate.

A Fine Romance: Selections from American Musical Theatre
Sondra Gelb with Chuck Woodward
Simon Family Jewish Community Center
Sunday, December 11, 2011, 4 pm

In the usual busy December holiday season it was fun to take a break from shopping and Christmas music for a program at the Simon Family Jewish Community Center in Virginia Beach. This was one of several events around a traveling exhibit, A Fine Romance, Jewish Songwriters of American Songs, 1910-1965.

Sondra Gelb opened the curtain on American musical theater in a comprehensive program of music by a dozen Jewish-American composers of the twentieth century. The two-hour extravaganza offered entertainment and education and featured the voices of some of Hampton Roads’ finest performers.

As host, Ms. Gelb warned us “As producer and programmer of this performance you are somewhat at the mercy of my personal tastes. With such a vast array of composers and repertory, I chose today’s fare by virtue of its historical, political and musical importance.” Recalling her excellent Simply Sondheim program last year we felt totally comfortable to let her lead us on this musical adventure. Charles Woodward was the pianist, offering his sensitivity and sense of occasion to this staging of some fifty songs. Ms. Gelb introduced each composer with a short biography followed by songs.

Jerome Kern (1884-1945) from age six wanted to be a songwriter. First we heard A Fine Romance, a dialogue between soprano/belter Dowler Young and baritone Wally Schachet Briskin as fall guy. Four selections from Show Boat followed. At age forty Kern began working with librettist Oscar Hammerstein II; they wanted to make the songs integral to the plot. We heard Make Believe, a charming fantasy of a possible love sung by coloratura-soprano Anna Sterrett, a singing actress who is busy building a career, paired with tenor Brian Nedvin who teaches voice and has directed two musicals at Old Dominion University this season. The polished performance with its wonderful vocal blend was exhilarating. Ms. Gelb sang Can’t Help Lovin’ dat Man with a knowing edge. Ms. Young created the innocent young woman in Life upon the Wicked Stage and Gregory Gardner sang Ol’ Man River with a voice as deep as the Mississippi River he sang about. Mr. Gardner teaches voice at Norfolk State and Hampton Universities.

Before Kern died suddenly in 1945 he had been working on what would become the musical Annie Get Your Gun. The producers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, then gave the task of writing the score to Irving Berlin (1888-1989). There’s No Business Like Show Business by Irving Berlin from Annie Get Your Gun (1946) offered a fun ensemble piece and They Say It’s Wonderful and Anything You Can Do by our opening couple, Ms. Young and Cantor Schachet-Briskin. Like a Hollywood crooner Cantor Schachet-Briskin sang Blue Skies. The song was written for a forgotten 1926 Berlin show and became popular years later only after it was interpolated into a Rodgers and Hart musical.

Brooklyn born and bred George Gershwin (1898-1937), who was an excellent pianist and accompanist, wrote hauntingly beautiful melodies with complex harmonies. The show Lady Be Good (1924) included the song Fascinatin’ Rhythm, performed on Broadway by Fred and Adele Astair and “old world operetta hastened toward its inevitable, syncopated death.” In a medley of three songs, Brian Nedvin displayed his acting chops in Fascinatin’ Rhythm; Cantor Wally was a real showman in Lady Be Good; followed by Greg Gardner and Sondra Gelb in a swinging performance of I Got Rhythm. Ms. Sterrett and Mr. Gardner in Bess, You is My Woman were outstanding with other singers humming along. She sang Summertime in a glorious, clear, high voice while he gave us I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ with his own rich sound and dramatic, seemingly effortless notes.

Composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) with librettist Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) put some thirty musicals on stage over a 23 year period. They were an odd couple: Hart was a gay, unreliable, alcoholic; Rodgers a homophobic, misanthropic alcoholic. From their works we heard: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered from Pal Joey (1940), their most daring musical with its realistic, cynical and immoral story, unsavory characters and suggestive lyrics. Pal Joey failed because it was ahead of its time and shocked the audience that was used to escapist musical comedy. Times changed and a 1952 revival and a 1957 film were highly successful. We heard Sing for Your Supper by the three women and My Funny Valentine by Ms. Gelb alone. Vocally there were some issues in the three numbers but it only made the characters they portrayed more believable.

Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) replaced Hart as Rodger’s lyricist and together they gave us Oklahoma! (1943), South Pacific (1949) and The Sound of Music (1959). It was widely assumed that Oklahoma would fail; it had no opening extravaganza, no chorus line and no interpolated songs for sheer entertainment. Rodgers and Hammerstein believed that all the songs and dances should advance the plot. They were right! Their success was a game changer for musical theater.

You’ve Got to be Taught (South Pacific) addresses the sensitive subject of interracial marriage. This should come as no surprise since as early as 1927 Hammerstein had written Show Boat where he expressed sympathy for the situation of black people in America and included an interracial love story. Sondheim characterizes the two giants, whose work he subsequently deconstructed in his own work, in Newsweek: “Oscar Hammerstein was a man of limited talent and infinite soul. Richard Rodgers was a man of infinite talent and limited soul.”

For the title song, Oklahoma!, the entire company joined together to create an exciting, full sound. High school junior, tenor Nicholas Richardson, wearing a red vest and wide smile had given us Kansas City and Ms. Sterrett did a lovely rendition of Out of My Dreams. From South Pacific, high school senior, baritone Nicholas Raja sang You’ve Got to be Taught. Mr. Gardner gave us a winning Some Enchanted Evening. The title song from The Sound of Music came alive in the singing of Ms. Young. Cantor Wally playing guitar sang Edelweiss and the whole company came together for Climb Every Mountain.

Leonard Bernstein in 1956 wrote Candide and in 1957 West Side Story. The operatically trained voices of Ms. Sterrett and Mr. Nedvin created believable characters from both musicals: Glitter and be Gay (Ms. Sterrett) and Make Our Garden Grow (Sterrett and Nedvin), Maria and Tonight. The young-man sound of Nick Richardson worked perfectly for Cool from West Side Story.

Frederick Loewe was born in Berlin. His father was a famous operetta tenor and created the role of Danilo in The Merry Widow in Vienna. Educated in Europe, he had a difficult adjustment, becoming homeless for a time in New York. After teaming-up with Alan Jay Lerner, they found success in 1947 with Brigadoon. Ms. Gelb chose They Call the Wind Maria (Paint Your Wagon) and two songs from My Fair Lady for our pleasure.

Frank Loesser (1910-1969) is best known for Guys and Dolls and his groundbreaking Most Happy Fella. He wrote both lyrics and music with some wonderful ensemble pieces. Why groundbreaking? He probed deeply into the emotional lives of his characters. In the trios and quartets individual characters voice their inner thoughts. Standing on the Corner sung by the male quartet featured a charming, natural-sounding solo part by Nick Raja followed by My Heart is so full of You by Ms. Sterrett and Mr. Gardner.

As we came to the Stephen Sondheim (b.1930) part of the show, Oscar Hammerstein is once again a part of the story. After Sondheim's parents divorced his mother moved with the eleven-year-old Stephen to Pennsylvania where their neighbor was Hammerstein. He became a father-figure, mentor and teacher to Sondheim. Later, he studied music with Milton Babbit. Sondheim’s big break came when an overworked Bernstein drafted him to write lyrics for West Side Story. We heard four songs from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). The opening number by the entire company, Comedy Tonight was followed by Ms. Sterrett singing Lovely. Ms. Gelb's contralto voice was especially affecting in That Dirty Old Man.

Composer Jerry Bock with lyricist Sheldon Harnick created Fiddler on the Roof (1964). This hearty exploration of sorrow and joy in a Russian shtetl (Jewish village) gave us the character Tevya with his big heart. Cantor Wally was featured in If I Were a Rich Man and also in Sabbath Prayer and the company brought us a grand finale with L'Chaim! Shostakovich pointed out its appeal when he saw the film while visiting America: “The primary emotion is homesickness, even though the motherland is a bad, unloving country, more a stepmother than a mother - people still miss her, and that loneliness made itself felt. ”

"If Irving Berlin can write it we can sing it" Ms. Gelb told us before the company sang the encore, White Christmas, with one small change: "I’m dreaming of a White Hanuka."

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