Summer of music

This summer has been filled with music--in three different cities and fourdifferent genres. It began in New Orleans where I was attending the Foundation for Teaching Economics' Economics for Leaders. While staying at Tullane University, I ventured down to the French Quarter to experience that city's fabled jazz at Snug Harbor. In the quintessential intimate jazz setting, I sat spell bound by jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis--father of Winton(trumpet), Branford(sax), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums) and teacher of Harry Connick, Jr. Not only was I treated to the improvisations of a master on jazz piano, but he brought along his son Delfeayo whose trombone playing can make even the most reticent music lover cheer for this uncommon solo instrument.

In New York, I attended five Broadway shows over the course of the summer, and three of them were extraordinarily wonderful. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" starring John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, and Joanna Gleason is a riotously funny musical based on the movie of the same name. The key to the humor is the lyrics, written by David Yazbek. "Monkey in a Suit" performed by Gregory Jbara hits all the right notes, both musically and comedically.

"Wicked" is certainly the most astonishing Broadway production of the century (granted it's only 2005). Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, "Wicked" tells the real story of Elphaba, who is born green and comes to be known to posterity as the Wicked Witch of the West. The musical is an honest interpretation of the original source material, not a staging of the book, so do not look too closely for parallels between the novel and the musical, few exist. As one friend I attended with said afterwards, "I forgot how music could move you emotionally the way this music does." The production (costumes, staging, etc) is both original andawe-inspiring; the music, when listened to over and over again, reveals layers of thought, emotion, and fun. "Loathing" is my new theme song.

Everyone needs to see, at least once, "Fiddler on the Roof."The present production is quite good, supported by a strong, if not well known, cast and an original staging that takes advantage of brilliant stagecraft. Part of the draw was Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, the father whose life, based on centuries of tradition, begins to disintegrate around him. "Fiddler" is a classic filled with standard showtunes like "Tradition," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," and "Rich Man." I am forced to qualify my enthusiasm as the NYTimes just reported that Rosie O'Donnell will be joining the cast as Golde, the wife of Tevye. (Please no jokes about Fierstein and O'Donnell as parents of five girls).

Finally, I also saw "Rent" and "Sweet Charity" as well. The production of "Rent" is good, but I had forgotten how unsubtle the musical is. They just beat you over the head with their message. It didn't help that the sound people blasted things so loudly it was impossible to hear the words of even the ballads. Though I can't complain too vociferously about Christina Applegate in "Sweet Charity" as she play her part with enthusiasm and just a soupcon of talent, the musical that birthed "Hey Big Spender" and "If They Could See Me Now" really has no place in the modern repetoire. Not only is it boring, but it is hard to relate to the "hooker with a heart of gold" theme. Luckily, the tickets were half off at TKTS.

Finally, I spent five weeks in Bethlehem, PA studying Johann Sebastian Bach. We were treated to two performances sponsored by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem. The first concert was by Greg Funfgeld and Thomas Goeman, on three different keyboard--organ, piano, and harpsichord. The highlight was Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, where Greg literally "pulled out all the stops," including the trumpet en Chamade (or shwarma as it became known in certain circles). The Choir also performed Cantata Number 4, Christ lag in todesbanden.

As part of Musikfest, I heard three superb groups who made the cocophany of bad cover bands, the reek of carnival food, and the machinations of teens with too much summer free time. The Arrogant Worms are a Canadian comedy band whose lyrics make even jaded Americans howl with laughter, led old time sing-a-longs to songs like "Jesus Brother Bob" and "Rippy the Gator." The funniest, though, was there protest song "Carrot Juice Is Murder."

The Boston group, Synergy Bass Quintet provided another respite, performing music from the Renaissance to the the twentieth century, including Bach, Dixieland, "Porgy and Bess," and Souza's "Stars and Stripes Forever." The picolo solo was given to the tuba, which prooved more than worth the free ticket price.

Finally, The Eric Mintel Quartet provided some hot jazz for Musikfest. Saxophonist Neil Wetzel embodies the very idea of jazz improvisation. His rendition of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" was breathtaking.