Milton Moore: A little respect for American music – Happy birthday, Richard Rodgers

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I’m perplexed by how the classical music world receives American music of the 20th century. Leonard Bernstein’s movie scores and musicals get a seal of approval, not just on quality, but because he wrote symphonies, too, and was music director of a couple of the world’s great orchestras. But a double-standard still applies in the opera house. Mozart’s “Magic Flute” has long spoken passages followed by singing (what the Germans call “singspiel”), sort of the Broadway of Vienna of its day. “Magic Flute” gets admittance to the opera house, but Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” surely some of the finest American music of the century, is downgraded as “musical theater.”

I was amazed when I read Alex Ross’s excellent book on music of the 20th century, “The Rest Is Noise,” and he made virtually no mention of Broadway (even though he enthused about the Velvet Underground rock band). Yet, while many reportedly talented composers were writing atonal mathematical exercises – the style they called serialism – and driving audiences from the concert hall, Broadway thrived at mid-century with some of America’s best and brightest.

Which bring me to our birthday boy, Richard Rodgers, born June 28, 1902.

Somehow, George Gershwin receives the same seal of approval as Bernstein, a free pass to the concert stage, while Rodgers does not. Gershwin wrote an opera and a couple orchestral jazz suites (though he was incapable of writing the orchestration for his most popular work, Rhapsody in Blue). Richard Rodgers simply wrote wonderful music, both direct and complex, where all concepts of high brow or low brow become irrelevant.

My gripe continues: Why is Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” considered one of the great, inspirational arias, and Rodger’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” considered some sort of Velveeta cheese? This performance, by operatic soprano Renee Fleming, at the first Obama inaugural concert gives me goose bumps every time … every time:

Of course, Renee Fleming knows how to sell a song …

With lyricist Lorenz Hart, Rodgers wrote some of the bedrock standards of the American Songbook, elegantly crafted tunes like "Where or When" and "My Funny Valentine.” With Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers wrote the most important musicals of his day: “Oklahoma!”, “South Pacific”, “The Sound of Music” and my favorite, “Carousel.”

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” is the showstopper from “Carousel,” but the dance sequence from the musical is music so well-crafted that former Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Paul C. Phillips once programmed it at the Garde:

When I was kid (even before YouTube), the NBC World War II documentary “Victory at Sea” still got aired from time to time, and Rodgers’ score for that contained some of the most memorable music ever written as a film score. Since my dad had been USN in that war, this was must-see TV in our house. I remember some of the footage, but the music is in my DNA now.

Here’s a couple sections from the orchestral suite, starting with the “Theme of the Fast Carriers”:

Next, the thrilling “Fire on the Waters”:

The “Beneath the Southern Cross” section contained a tune too good to ignore, and it morphed into “No Other Love Have I”:

And finally, “The Pacific Boils Over,” beginning with gently rolling, calm seas and erupting into warfare midway (pun intended) through:

Barriers help no one. The best way to define classical music is “precise music,” music that adheres to a score. Can’t we all just move forward with this?

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