Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Just out of Reach

Centennial Awareness Dept.: Composer Jerome Moross was born in 1913. As his daughter, Susanna, writes, he “is probably best known for the film score for the movie The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Film Score and his reputation became celebrated within the film industry. However, his music goes far beyond film – from orchestral, chamber music, ballet, and opera, to Broadway and the Great American Songbook.” She runs a website devoted to his music, which is well worth visiting, especially as anniversary performances and activities continue throughout the year. Several years ago, the Bard Music Festival presented a concert performance of Moross’s Broadway show The Golden Apple, which proved unexpectedly disappointing. Here’s the report I filed.


AS WITH ULYSSES HIMSELF, fate dealt an unexpected blow to “The Golden Apple” when the hugely successful 1954 off-Broadway show moved to Broadway: it lasted for 125 performances, far fewer than its original notices seemed to promise. And it entered theatrical history as one of those question-mark musicals: a show that, in retrospect, may have been too good for its own good, offending the gods of ticket sales with its artistic hubris.

Jerome Moross in 1977
Certainly nothing like it had been seen in that context before. It’s through-composed, like an opera, but the songs themselves pay tribute to musical theater traditions, from vaudeville (there’s a wonderful pastiche of “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”) to heartrending ballad. The book transplants stories from the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” to rural Washington State in the early 1900s, with Ulysses and his men just back from the Spanish-American War (they sing a tribute to Teddy Roosevelt) and all the men vying for the attention of Helen, the village flirt.

Book and lyrics were by John Latouche, a virtuoso wordsmith who’d previously worked with Vernon Duke and Duke Ellington when he teamed with composer Jerome Moross. By 1954, Moross had written a symphony and several ballets (include the notorious “Frankie and Johnny”) and was beginning to write music for movies; his best-known movie score would be “The Big Country” (1958).

Moross was one of the first classically trained composers to successfully synthesize elements of jazz in his works. He also had a keen ear for American vernacular music, and “The Golden Apple,” so many other of his scores, often has an easygoing, folksong feel. Beneath it, however, churns an orchestral palette of depth and complexity, with difficult but danceable rhythms and a unifying thread of motivic elements.

In his talent and versatility, he foreshadowed Leonard Bernstein by many years – I would argue that without Moross, there would have been no Bernstein – but Moross lacked the high-visibility platform Bernstein acquired. Which is why it’s a delight to hear a work like “The Golden Apple” in its entirety, with a talented orchestra to bring it to life.

Last Sunday’s concert presentation at Bard College put alumnus Jonathan Tunick on the podium with members of the American Symphony Orchestra, and they did brought the music to life in all its rhythmic complexity. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of the words. A cast of Broadway notables lined the front of the stage at the Sosnoff Theater, but you could barely hear a one of them.

I’m familiar with the show from its original cast recording, which presents less than half of the piece (this was from the days when a two-or-more-record cast album would have been unthinkable), but even so it was a chore even making out the songs I knew.

Some fared better than others: “Lazy Afternoon” has achieved a life of its own thanks to recordings by Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand, and the quiet, Satie-like accompaniment allowed one of the few opportunities to hear Kate Baldwin (as Helen). Crista Moore, as Penelope, Ulysses’ long-suffering wife, also had a splendid moment with another affecting song, “Windflowers,” but was forced to compete with a more overwhelming backup.

I have long complained about the over-use of (and now reliance upon) amplification in the theater; here I found myself longing for microphones. But the concert should have worked without them. I fear there’s an emperor’s-new-clothes aspect to Yasuhisa Toyota’s much-vaunted acoustic design. Although he scored a great success with the Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall, in the Sosnoff Theater the sound of a traditionally arrayed orchestra is brass heavy and lacks transparency.
Jerome Moross and
John Latouche

The production was further hobbled by the stage setup, which placed the singers, both soloists and chorus, downstage of the conductor, giving no chance of interaction. Which mightn’t have mattered: although several TV monitors were within view of the singers, Tunick gave them no discernible cues. They must have rehearsed at least once – was nobody around to listen?

And the cues were needed, because the singers were under-rehearsed. It was an eager ensemble, and the chorus had a strong, orchestra-topping sound, but entrances were ragged. Two chorus members provided stage directions, which weren’t coordinated with and were often drowned out by the orchestra.

The soloists showed varying degrees of familiarity with the material. Not surprisingly for a complicated one-off like this, everybody was on book, but some had their heads buried deeper than others. Warranting praise among the soloists were Daniel Marcus as Menelaus, who was unfailingly funny; Evalyn Baron as the intimidating Mother Hare; Howard McGillin as Ulysses and his sextet of heroes: David Staller, Victor Dixon, Graham Rowat, Drew McVety, Sinclair Mitchell and Ken Jennings.

Switching mythology for a moment, this show is a holy grail among Broadway enthusiasts; although it should at least have become an opera house stalwart by now, productions are scarce, making this an all-the-more exciting opportunity. How sad, then, to have this “Golden Apple” dangled so tantalizingly in front of us but cruelly whisked away.

The Golden Apple
By Jerome Moross and John Latouche
Bard College, Aug. 28, 2005

Metroland Magazine, 1 September 2005

No comments: