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Monday, May 12, 2014

Journey into the Past

What’s Playing? Dept.: The world of American song opened for me when I was a teenager. I discovered the work of Cole Porter, and from there headed back in time to Moore’s Irish Melodies, this country’s best-selling songbook in the 18th century, on up through Stephen Foster, minstrelsy, light opera and the birth of Broadway and back to Porter and his confrères. I kind of missed what was on the radio at the time, but a concert like the one I reviewed below is meat and potatoes for me.


IN PREVIOUS CENTURIES, popular and classical music in America tried to ignore one another, but significant composers explored and encouraged an overlap. Such was the case with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a piano virtuoso who thrived in the 19th century. His short solo work “The Banjo” remains about the only record of what that instrument sounded like in those days, even as it taxes the pianist with Lisztian fingerbusting challenges.

Lincoln Mayorga and Sheri Bauer-Mayorga
Pianist Lincoln Mayorga is another who straddles the classical and popular to a point that obscures any notion of boundary. He made “The Banjo” sound easier than it should, although the amount of travel his left hand achieved in no time at all was dizzying to witness.

He’s married to Sheri Bauer-Mayorga, a singer with a refreshing lack of pretense who places herself in the service of the material she sings. That she also created this wide-ranging program means that she knows what’s behind the words of those songs.

She started right off with a tribute to Lincoln in Irving Berlin’s early-in-his-career “I Love a Piano,” easily construed as applying to a different instrument, its playfulness reinforced by Sheri’s easygoing, self-confident manner. She won me with the way she treated a thrice-repeated “o,” shading the syllable’s meaning with each repetition without taking to the cornball extreme I’m too used to hearing.

“The Banjo” quotes Stephen Foster, one of many reasons to program Foster songs, the others being the sheer Schubert-like beauty of his best work. “Some Folks” is an up-tempo number that probably was more comical in its day and endures now as a charming relic; “Hard Times” is as gorgeous as a song can get, even if it’s overlong. It works especially well with a mixed chorus, and in that spirit the piano offered countermelody lines to the vocal. (And the piece was tastefully shortened.)

We had the mountains represented with a pair of Appalachian ballads that began with Jean Ritchie’s version of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,” sung unaccompanied by Sheri, its stark warning (how those old songs loved to moralize!) well served by the austerity of its sound. Lincoln’s arrangement of “If I Had a Ribbon Bow,” by contrast, gave Sheri a chance to show her jazzy Anita O’Day side with the ensemble, especially Otto Gardner’s bass.

Johnny Mercer’s “Lazy Bones” harkens to the Foster-era days of minstrelsy, while “Skylark” became a solid standard. Both were written with composer Hoagy Carmichael. Sheri’s approach was to give a significant contrast between the two, particularly in a “Skylark” arrangement that gave her a recitative-like opening, then put down a solid groove for the second eight bars and beyond. And “Lazy Bones” offered Lincoln a chance to swing out in his best Earl Hines style for a chorus.

A pre-curtain slideshow included images of the songwriters as well as a succession of New Yorker psychiatrist-couch cartoons. The latter was explained by the trio of songs that ended the first half: Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex,” which reminds us that mother love can go too far, the enigmatic art song “The Total Stranger in the Garden” by William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein and Annie Ross’s (and Wardell Gray’s) maniacal “Twisted,” which Sheri took at a clip that left Joni Mitchell in the dust without sacrificing a syllable.

The world of jazz was further represented by Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and the unfortunately condescending “On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks” from the failed Duke Ellington-John LaTouche show Beggar’s Holiday.

Sheri calls Randy Newman a latter-day Stephen Foster, and I’m fine with that, especially as she represented his work with the touching “Louisiana: 1927.” You’ll find Lincoln on some of Phil Ochs’ recordings, although no extra justification is needed to include his songs, and “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” is an oldie not quite dated enough to fail to make the audience squirm.

Lincoln’s own “Camarillo” shows him to be a composer with a Debussy streak, although the song sports a more contemporary language in support of its evocation that California town’s urbanization. And Sheri performed her own “Sixties TV,” recalling the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., a song crafted with skill and performed with affecting grace.

The performing ensemble also included drummer Ted MacKenzie, who spent much of the evening on brushes but used whatever was needed to enhance his rhythmic support. Each member of the ensemble is frighteningly protean, creating a range of styles as varied as the program itself, and leading us out with a jazzy version of Malvina Reynolds’s “This World,” offering a good dose of hope for the future—hope that I hope includes the future of the American song.

American Snapshots: 200 Years of American Song
Sheri Bauer-Mayorga, singer; Lincoln Mayorga, pianist; Otto Gardner, bass; Ted MacKenzie, drums, GE Theatre at Proctors, May 1

Metroland Magazine, 8 May 2014

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