HORNE IN STELLAR TRIBUTE TO TIN PAN ALLEY
By Lawrence Budmen
The legacy of Tin Pan Alley and the American popular song are the nation's quintessential musical export. The decade of the 1930's was particularly rich in great scores for Broadway and Hollywood productions. Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Hoagy Carmichael were just some of the masters who produced some of the greatest songs ever written. These composers wrote inspired melodies that became part of the national consciousness through the powerful mediums of radio and the movies. The great songs of that era (with a few contemporary additions) were celebrated by the legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne in "An American Salute! Great American Popular Songs" on May 8, 2004 at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall, presented by the UM Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music.
After nearly five decades on the opera and concert stages of the world Ms. Horne is still a formidable presence. While her voice does not display all of its former luster, it is still an instrument of beauty. Her musicality, artistry, and ability to enthrall an audience remain unequaled. Unlike many opera stars who sing Rodgers or Gershwin as if it were Puccini, Horne sings this music with the ease and unforced fervor of great pop singer. Her diction was impeccable. Every word was clear and beautifully articulated. She really made the text count! Her use of amplification was not inappropriate to the material and her natural, vernacular style of delivery (rather than stentorian voiced operatic belting). Indeed her intimate, chatty manner and ease of production suggested that she was singing in a drawing room rather than a concert hall - an illusion to be sure, but it worked. Horne is first and foremost a great artist. She made every song a unique experience.
Despite a slight constriction in the upper register "The Song Is You" (from the Broadway show "Music In the Air") by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein was sung with wonderful richness and smooth, even line. Gershwin's "Embraceable You" (from "Girl Crazy") was all vocal velvet - a wondrous arioso in dark, mezzo tones. Even more beguiling was Horne's vibrant, dusky rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" (from "Pal Joey") by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. She had the ease and emotional edginess of Frank Sinatra in this material. Horne caught the schmaltzy humor and Viennese syncopation of Gershwin's "By Strauss" - a loving parody of a waltz.
That Horne remains a great singing actress was borne out by her smoldering rendition of "Supper Time" (from the revue "As Thousands Cheer") by Irving Berlin. Originally composed for Ethel Waters, this song is the poignant lament of a woman whose husband has been lynched. Horne's singing of this Berlin classic was unforgettable, emotionally powerful, and deeply moving. (This song illustrates an unusual side of Berlin -as writer of socially conscious songs. "Supper Time" recalls the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit.") Her torchy rendition of Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean" was a winner. She was joined by her piano accompanist and arranger Don Pippin for a witty duet on "You're Just In Love" (from Berlin's "Call Me Madame"). Pippin sang in a fine, natural baritone.
Horne's Cole Porter group was particularly delightful. She made "Let Yourself Go" really swing! "In the Still of the Night" was sung with great simplicity. And what artistry and subtlety she brought to "I've Got You Under My Skin." Her gorgeous vocalism was perfectly matched to Porter's sophisticated music and lyrics. Turning to the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harberg score for "The Wizard of Oz," Horne did a hilarious turn on "Bang, Bang, the Witch is Dead" - replete with Rossinian mezzo coloratura as only Marilyn Horne could do it. She brought elegance and beauty to "Over the Rainbow." ("I'm not afraid of Judy Garland," she told the audience.)
Horne sang the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Georgia On My Mind" with the idiomatic flair of a blues singer. On a more contemporary note, her voice soared in the title song from "Beauty and the Beast" by Howard Ashman and Allan Menken. Her version of Paul Simon's "A Bridge Over Troubled Waters" was in equal parts subtle art song and rousing gospel cry, sung with fervor. As an encore Horne offered a lovely vocalaise on Berlin's "Always" - an appropriate choice since this song was written for another great operatic diva, Grace Moore (a famous Mimi and Tosca of the 1920's, 1930's, and early 1940's).
Pippin, a veteran Broadway conductor, was magnificent at the piano. His arrangements were consistently inventive and stylish. He provided strong, sensitively inflected support for Horne. On his own, he offered a brilliant medley of songs by the neglected Broadway composer Vincent Youmans. Pippin is a superb musician!
This delightful concert delved into the repository of classic musical Americana. While she no longer commands the title role of "Carmen" or the Rossini heroines, Marilyn Horne remains a great artist and a splendid exponent of the Great American Songbook!