A Culture Weekend in NYC – “Merrily We Roll Along” at City Center Encores, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, New York Polyphony at American Academy of Arts & Letters

Herewith a brief report on my very busy cultural weekend in New York City on February 11 & 12, 2012.

On Saturday afternoon, I attended New York City Center Encores' production of "Merrily We Roll Along," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and original book by George Furth.  As with every revival of this musical, which was unsuccessfully first produced in New York in 1981, tinkering has gone on.  Since then Sondheim has written new music and cut old music.  James Lapine, a frequent Sondheim collaborator who has played a role in revising the show for some of the revivals, directed this one, and Joanthan Tunick, who has been orchestrating Sondheim shows for a long time, revised the orchestration so that the new musical material and the old material would have a coherent sound with the Encores orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman.

They brought together a first-rate cast, with Colin Donnell playing the leading role of Franklin Shepard, the successful Hollywood film producer, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary Flynn and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley Kringas, his two "old friends."  The story, based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, starts out by showing us the situation of these people in 1981, then moves back through the years to show us, in the last scene of Act II, how they first met. 

I thought the performance was stunningly good, but I had my doubts about the show at intermission.  (I hadn't seen the original production, but did see a community theater revival by the St. Bart's Players several years ago.)  Those doubts were resolved after intermission.  What seemed tedious and obscure in Act I came clearer as one went further and further back in time and gradually understood who these people were and how their lives grew in different directions.  The next morning, I listened to the cast recording of a 1994 revival by the York Theatre Company, and I came to the conclusion that one enjoys Act I much more if one has recently seen Act II.  Telling the story in reverse order doesn't work so well the first time through. 

In the program book and the post-show "speak-out" that follows Saturday matinees at Encores, there was some talk about the changes made in the show to try to make this work better.  The original show did not include a scene about how the three lead characters met, and started out with a high school reunion instead of a producer's party celebrating the successful release of a new film.  Some music was dropped from the original to make it tighter and help the audience understand the plot better.  I'm still wondering whether this could be a commercially viable show, but in the Encores format it worked pretty well, and the cast is so good that one hopes there will be a cast recording.  Unusually for Encores, they are doing more than just the normal 5 performances, so there are still chances to see it in the week ahead. 

After a break for dinner at a theater district favorite, Eatery on 9th Avenue, I hustled back to Carnegie Hall for a concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  In the first half, we had Michael Tippett's Divertimento for chamber orchestra on "Sellinger's Round," followed by Dmitri Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto, Op. 35, with piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and trumpet soloist Louis Hanzlik.  After intermission, Arthur Honegger's Pastorale d'ete provided a gentle prelude for Peter Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings.  Orpheus plays without a conductor, providing a true chamber music approach in which the performers work out their interpretation through a consensus formed by key players who rotate from piece to piece.  This approach generally works quite well, and gives the music a different flavor than it would have in conducted performances.  Orpheus is known for sharp ensemble, and most of the time that distinction prevailed on Saturday.

The true test of this arrangement comes in works with a soloist, and the Shostakovich concerto was the one piece on the program where I felt things went a bit wrong.  The outer movements were rather faster-paced than usual, and the finale actually seemed to me to come close to careening out of control, especially in the final section, where Mr. Thibaudet's playing struck me as a bit slapdash due to the excessively fast tempo.  I wonder if there was some disagreement between Thibaudet and the orchestra members about tempi.  The performance did not feel ideally cohesive to me, almost more like a contest between the piano and the orchestra, which was disappointing because the Shostakovich concerto is a piece that I thought would have benefited from the chamber music approach that Orpheus embraces.

Here is an odd coincidence of scheduling.  Last Saturday I heard the Tchaikovsky Serenade played by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO) at Washington Irving High School on the Peoples' Symphony series.  Orpheus and ECCO have much in common.  Both play without a conductor, and the string ensembles were roughly the same size for the two performances.  Where they part company is that ECCO is entirely a string orchestra, while Orpheus also plays the chamber orchestra repertory involving winds (as in the Tippett and Honegger pieces on this program).  They also parted company in one other way I found interesting:  ECCO used 4 each of first violins, second violins, violas and cellos, with two double basses, and were playing in a much smaller hall.  Orpheus used 5 first violins, 4 seconds and violas, and 3 cellos, with only one double-bass.  The difference in forces made a big difference in the sound of the music.  I definitely felt a deeper, richer sound out of ECCO — which may be due as much to the venue as to the heftier bottom provided by 4 cellos and 2 basses.  Heard on its own, the Orpheus performance at Carnegie was terrific, albeit with a lighter feeling (as heard from the first row of the dress circle, center).  ECCO is a much younger group, formed just a decade ago, while Orpheus has been around for forty years and recorded this Serenade long ago.  ECCO's performance struck me as more impassioned, more precise, more excited — which will hopefully be reflected in their recording, due for issue next month.  Orpheus's performance was more expansive, more settled.  One of their musicians commented in an interview with a WQXR announcer prior to the performance that playing the Tchaikovsky was like "coming home" because they've played it so often.  Familiarity undoubtedly contributed to the more settled feeling.  I enjoyed both performances, and am eagerly awaiting the ECCO recording.  Meanwhile, I found that Arkivmusic.com has reissued the Orpheus recording, so I've ordered it as while, and look forward to the comparison.

Finally, rounding out my NYC culture weekend was New York Polyphony's program, "A Renaissance Valentine," presented at the American Academy of Arts and Letters by the Miller Theatre at Columbia University Early Music Series.  NY Polyphony is a fantastic vocal quartet of Geoffreyy Williams (countertenor), Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor), Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone), and Craig Phillips (bass).  They specialized in Renaissance polyphony.  I've heard them perform several times, and highly esteem their recording of English renaissance polyphony: Tudor City.  For this concert, planned to reflect the Valentine's Day theme of the week, they devoted their first half to settings of the Latin version of the Song of Songs by Guerrero, Brumel, Clemens "Non Papa", Pyamour, Forest, Dunstable, and Plummer.  Not a lot of familiar music there, but excellent music rendered with great finesse.  They introduced this sequence with an isorhymic motet by Philippe de Vitry, a medieval composer.

After intermission, they turned their attention to madrigals with a strong love theme from Italy, France and England.  Departing from the printed program, they rearranged and supplemented the final set of English madrigals.  This half was also rendered with finesse, but also in a more "popular" style appropriate to the music and sometimes naughty lyrics. 

Go out of your way to hear them.  They are an extraordinary group, bringing excellent voices and a high level of musicality to everything they sing.  This program showed off their incredible versatility in singing both more serious and lighter repertory.  I hope they will get to record more of this music.


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