Billy Porter: Broadway & Soul

Billy Porter: Broadway & Soul
Friday, April 3, 2015

At Live From Lincoln Center we continue our exploration of the “American Songbook” on the first two Friday evenings in April. The Friday April 3 telecast will showcase the star of "Kinky Boots,” Billy Porter, in a program of Broadway and Soul music. The following Friday, April 10, will feature Norm Lewis in a program titled "Who Am I?"

The term American Songbook refers to the Golden Age of America's love affair with the songs of the 1920s through the 1950s. These songs came primarily from three sources: Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. Giants roamed the popular music world in those years, years that were highlighted by the work of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter. And the performers included the pantheon of America's Pop singers, the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand.

The explosion of rock and roll in the '60s and '70s tended to sideline this treasure trove of America's musical culture----but it was always there, ripe for the picking. One who constantly shined a light on this extraordinary musical heritage was pianist/singer/archivist Michael Feinstein. In recent years he has been joined by the likes of Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Gloria Estefan, Barry Manilow, Sting, and, most recently, Tony Bennett in duet with Lady Gaga. Also two of The Beatles--Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney--have recorded songs from The Great American Songbook.

Billy Porter, the star of our next "Great American Songbook" presentation, is a native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University's College of Fine Arts. He also has certification from the Professional Program in Screenwriting at the University of California at Los Angeles. His life as a performer has taken many roads. He first burst upon the musical theater scene as the Teen Angel in the 1994 revival of “Grease.” Since then he has played leading roles in a variety of works, including “Grease,” “Smokey Joe's Café,” “Miss Saigon” and “Angels in America.”

The year 2013 was a Golden Year for Billy Porter. For his portrayal of Lola, a drag queen in “Kinky Boots,” he received Broadway's 2013 Tony Award For Best Actor in a Musical. That role also earned him the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for the Outstanding Actor in a Musical.

Film, television and recording have featured in his performing life as well. On television he has appeared in “Another World,” “The Broken Hearts Club” and “Law and Order,” among other series. His theater directing credits include “The Wiz” and “Being Alive” (a tribute to both Stephen Sondheim and William Shakespeare). He has written a semi-autobiograhical play, “While I Yet Live,” the story of a black, gay Christian in America. He has served as a Guest Judge on “So You Think You Can Dance” and he has made a number of critically-acclaimed recordings, the latest of which is “Billy's Back on Broadway.” Billy Porter's Live From Lincoln Center appearance will include memorable moments from “Cabaret,” “Gypsy,” “Funny Girl,” “Guys and Dolls” and of course “Kinky Boots.”

Commenting in The New York Times on Porter's performance of “Take the Moment” from the Rodgers and Sondheim Musical “Do I Hear a Waltz,” critic Stephen Holden wrote: “His performance created the kind of epiphany that a great voice can conjure out of thin air.”

So, an exciting event awaits us on Friday evening, April 3, at 9 PM on Live From Lincoln Center. Be sure to check your local PBS station for the exact day and time in your neighborhood.

Enjoy!

MARTIN BOOKSPAN

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Norm Lewis: Who Am I?
Friday, April 10, 2015

On Friday evening, April 10, our featured artist will be Norm Lewis, whom we met earlier this year at our New Year's Eve all-Gershwin program with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Among Lewis’ successes on Broadway have been “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” (for which he received a Tony Award nomination), “Sondheim on Sondheim,” “Miss Saigon” and “The Who's TOMMY.”  Mr. Lewis, a native of Eatonville, Florida (the oldest Black Chartered Municipality in the United States) has appeared in virtually all areas of the entertainment world: stage, screen, television, opera and the concert stage. For his Live From Lincoln Center appearance Lewis will continue our exploration of “The Great American Songbook.”

The first half of the twentieth century, especially the years between the 1930s and the 1950s, were the glory years of American popular music, producing hundreds of songs that have stood the test of time and are now an integral part of “The Great American Songbook.” As a parenthetical observation it should be mentioned that those years were also the years that produced great American Symphonies: The Second Symphony of Randall Thompson, the Third Symphonies of Roy Harris, William Schuman and Aaron Copland; the Second Symphony of David Diamond; the "Romantic" Symphony of Howard Hanson; the First Symphony ("Jeremiah") of Leonard Bernstein – among many others.

It was in 1972 that composer Alec Wilder wrote the definitive book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, describing the history and impact of the Pop music of the period. In clear and colorful words Wilder delineates the common qualities that underlie those great songs: lyrics that more often than not are witty or teasing or celebratory, and music that once heard can never be forgotten. One of the more intriguing elements in Wilder's book is his observation that these songs bear a relationship to classical music in their form and structure.

Our headliner, Norm Lewis, is one of the Great transmitters of the American Songbook. He began his singing life in church choirs, and in his high school and college choruses. Early in his professional career he served on the staff of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. Early on, on the path trodden by many of today's younger singer/performers, he was featured as an entertainer on cruise ships. The "Who Am I?" title for his Live From Lincoln Center appearance will be elucidated by songs from such iconic Broadway shows as “Stop the World--I Want to Get Off,” “Les Miserables,” and “Company.” In addition we'll hear music from the Gospel and Soul tradition, including Stevie Wonder's “Knocks me Off My Feet” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” One of the highlights is certain to be “I Got Plenty O' Nuttin’” from the Gershwins’  “Porgy and Bess,” which Lewis will sing in two different styles: with the opera aria cum jazzy abandon of the original intent, then switching to a pop and spiritual mode.

In answering the question “Who Am I?” Norm Lewis has written: "My life and work ethic comes from the business world, but I envy those who have been through conservatories, because they've had the choice to delve into character study in a way I never did. But at the same time I've heard horror stories about acting teachers at these places who've said to students ‘You have no talent and you'll never work.’ I don't know if I could have pursued a theater career if I had been told that at a young age.” Fortunately, Norm Lewis took the path that led him to the brilliant career he has enjoyed and that has enriched all of us.

Joining Norm Lewis on stage for his Live From Lincoln Center appearance will be musicians Joseph Joubert, George Farmer and Perry Cavari, as well as Pastor Bobby Lewis and the 15-member gospel choir, the Bobby Lewis Ensemble. So mark your calendars for an exciting evening will Norm Lewis and Company on Friday evening, April 10 on Live From Lincoln Center.

Do please check your local PBS station for the exact day and time of the program in your area.

Enjoy! 

MARTIN BOOKSPAN

Norm Lewis: Who Am I?

Richard Tucker Opera Gala: A New Century
Friday, January 23, 2015

The superb American tenor, Richard Tucker, died in Kalamazoo, Michigan in January, 1975 while on a concert tour with his great friend, the baritone Robert Merrill.

Within the year his widow and sons created the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, a “non-profit cultural organization dedicated to perpetuating the artistic legacy of the great American tenor through the support and advancement of the careers of talented American opera singers.”  Hundreds of young American singers have benefitted from this support, and each year the Foundation singles out an extraordinary young singer for The Richard Tucker Award in recognition of having “reached a high level of artistic accomplishment and who, in the opinion of a conferral panel, is on the threshold of a major international career.”  Among past recipients of The Richard Tucker Award are Renee Fleming (1990), Deborah Voigt (1992), Stephanie Blythe (1999), Dwayne Croft ((1996) and Matthew Polenzani (2004). The crowning event each year is a Gala Concert in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in which that year’s Richard Tucker Award recipient is joined by stars from the Metropolitan Opera for a musical extravaganza.  Live From Lincoln Center has been present with its cameras and microphones at many of these joyous occasions, and we are pleased to do so again. The orchestra along with the 180-member New York Choral Society, whose Music Director is David Hayes, will be conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, Music Director of the Dallas Opera.

The winner of the current Richard Tucker Music Foundation Award is 30-year old tenor Michael Fabiano, a native of Montclair, New Jersey, who opens the program with the brilliant aria “Tutto parea sorridere” from Il corsaro, one of the lesser-known operas of Verdi. Mr. Fabiano has sung with the San Francisco Opera, the Paris Opera and at La Scala in Milan, among others. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2010.

The 29 year-old soprano, Pretty Yende, is our next artist, with the aria “Qui la voce” from Bellini's I puritani. She is a South African graduate of the Accademia Teatro alla Scala in Milan and has sung the role of Musetta in Puccini's La Boheme with the La Scala Opera. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013 in Rossini's Le comte Ory.

Bass Ildar Abdrazakov, 38 and a native of Russia, is by now a veteran of most of the world's great opera houses. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2004 as Don Giovanni in Mozart's masterpiece with James Levine conducting. Along with the New York Choral Society Abdrazakov brings us back to Verdi with the aria “Infelice!... e tuo credevi” from Ernani. Later in the evening Abdrazakov will join mezzo-soprano Ingeborg Gillebo for the duet “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Another young veteran of the international operatic scene is the 36-year old Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, who is next in line with one of the all-time favorite tenor arias, “E lucevan le stele” from Puccini's Tosca. Mr. Calleja has sung with the world's principal opera companies and made his Metropolitan debut in 2006 as the Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto. The Conductor for Calleja's first recording, the esteemed Riccardo Chailly, remarked: “For some time now I have not heard such a talent at this young age, with a sound harking back to a quality I thought we had long lost.”

Soprano Angela Meade along with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and the New York Choral Society offer “Esprits de l'air” from Massenet's Esclarmonde. Miss Meade was the 2011 Richard Tucker Award winner and she has since gone on to grace the concert and operatic stages of the world. Among her many engagements this season is a series of performances of the Verdi “Requiem” with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Jennifer Johnson Cano made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2009 in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and since then has appeared there in Hansel ad Gretel, Das Rheingold, Gotterdammerung, Madam Butterfly and The Bartered Bride.

A relative newcomer to American audiences, 31-year old Norwegian mezzo-soprano, Ingeborg Gillebo, the Zerlina to lldar Abdrazakov's Don Giovanni, is a mainstay of the Norwegian Opera Company and has sung Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro under James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera.

At the age of 46 Serbian baritone Željko Lučić is the elder statesman among the evening's singers. He has appeared with many of the world's leading companies and made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2006. He will sing one of the hits from the baritone repertory, “Nemico della patria” from Giordano's Andrea Chenier.

Joseph Calleja returns for another favorite tenor aria, “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Massenet's Werther, followed by Lebanon-born Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, a particular favorite of the late conductor Lorin Maazel, who chose her for important opera and concert performances. She and Michael Fabiano will sing the duet “Toi! Vous!” from Massenet's Manon.

“Pace, pace, mio Dio” from Verdi's La Forza del Destino is the vehicle for Angela Meade's final solo appearance.

Our program concludes with two items from the repertory of Spanish zarzuela and the American Broadway stage. Joseph Calleja sings “No puede ser” (It cannot be), probably the best-known of all the works by the Spanish composer Pablo Sorozabal from his zarzuela, the nautical romance “La taberna del Puerto.” And Pretty Yende winds up the festivities with an aria most appropriate to her name, "I Feel Pretty" from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story.

But our extravaganza is not quite finished: As an encore a sextet of singers regales us with the Act II Finale from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Quite an evening awaits us on the telecast of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala Concert Friday evening, January 23 at 10:00 PM. Please check with your local PBS station for the exact date and time in your neighborhood.

Enjoy!

MARTIN BOOKSPAN

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New York Philharmonic New Year's Eve: Gershwin Celebration
with Dianne Reeves and Norm Lewis
Wednesday, December 31, 2014 at 8 PM

Ever since our very first telecast in January 1976, when the New York Philharmonic played under the direction of Andre Previn and Van Cliburn was soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto, it has been our pleasure several times each season to bring you concerts by the New York Philharmonic on Live From Lincoln Center. On December 31, 1984 our cameras and microphones were in Avery Fisher Hall to inaugurate what has since become a fruitful tradition: the Philharmonic's New Year's Eve Concert as a highlight of the PBS end-of-the-year schedule. That tradition will continue on Wednesday, December 31 with an all-Gershwin program to be conducted by Bramwell Tovey and with singers Dianne Reeves and Norm Lewis as soloists.

The music of George Gershwin and the New York Philharmonic share a long and distinguished career. His Piano Concerto was premiered in December 1925 by the New York Symphony (which later merged with the Philharmonic), with Gershwin himself at the piano. In the early 1930's all-Gershwin programs were highlights of the Philharmonic's Spring and Summer concerts in the City's Lewisohn Stadium, usually with Gershwin playing his “Rhapsody in Blue.” The Broadway stage was enriched by a seemingly endless series of superb Gershwin musicals, and he appeared many times on national radio broadcasts that originated in New York’s radio studios. Gershwin, a native New Yorker, reflects in much of his music the vitality and 24/7 energy of the city.

Conductor Bramwell Tovey made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2001. Three years later he was invited to return to the Philharmonic and become the conductor for a new Spring and Summertime series, “Summertime Classics.” Those concerts have since become treasured events on New York's musical calendar. Maestro Tovey, since September 2000, has been the much-admired Conductor and Music Director of Canada's Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. And in 2008 he was named Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Hollywood Bowl Concerts. This past summer he made his debut at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducting a much-admired concert performance of Leonard Bernstein's “Candide.”

I serve as Moderator for Tanglewood's Friday evening pre-concert Roundtable discussions, and the evening before the “Candide” performance Maestro Tovey was one of my guests. I seized the opportunity to ask him a question which had long puzzled me: “Maestro, are you related to the formidable British writer and musicologist, Sir Donald Francis Tovey?” Ever the performer, Maestro Tovey took his time replying. After a long, pregnant pause, he finally gave a four-word answer: “No, I am not.” I detected that he had been asked that question dozens, perhaps hundreds of times!

Singer Dianne Reeves comes from a musical family. Her father, a fine singer, died when she was two years old. Her mother played trumpet, a cousin was a keyboard player and record producer, and an uncle was a bass player in the Denver Symphony Orchestra. She herself knew at an early age that she wanted to be a singer “when she grew up.” The trumpeter Clark Terry became her mentor and between 1983 and 1986 she toured as a lead singer with Harry Belafonte. At the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City Dianne Reeves sang at the closing ceremony. As a recording artist she is a four-time Grammy Award winner for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. The music of Gershwin is in her bones.

For his part, baritone Norm Lewis has had a distinguished career as both a singer and actor. Since making his Broadway debut in 1993 in The Who's “Tommy,” he has been featured in “Miss Saigon,” “Chicago,” “Les Miserables” and in a number of starring roles in the New York Public Theater's summer season performances of Shakespeare in the Park. Lewis has played Porgy in Gershwin's “Porgy and Bess” on a variety of stages. For his portrayal in the 2012 American Repertory Theater production he was nominated for a Tony Award; as Outstanding Actor in a Musical by both the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle; and for Distinguished Performance by the Drama League.

The New York Philharmonic's all-Gershwin program on New Year's Eve will bring us the Cuban Overture, the concert suite that Gershwin himself drew up out of his music for “Porgy and Bess,” the rousing “Strike Up the Band” and a cornucopia of Gershwin songs from the great American Songbook.

So celebrate with us the exit of the year 2014 and the arrival of a better (we hope) 2015 with the New York Philharmonic, conductor Bramwell Tovey and celebrated singers Dianne Reeves and Norm Lewis---all on Live From Lincoln Center on Wednesday evening, December 31. As always I urge you to contact your local PBS station to get the exact day and time for the telecast in your local area.

Happy New Year!!

MARTIN BOOKSPAN

SAB_SERENADE.jpegThe curtain rises on a new generation of ballet dancers, at the School of American Ballet's 50th Anniversary Workshop Performances.

Curtain Up: The School of American Ballet Workshop Performances
Friday, December 12, 2014

The New York City Ballet and Live From Lincoln Center are old friends and colleagues. The Company made its first appearance on our series in January 1978, exactly two years after our launch with a concert by the New York Philharmonic. Since then we have been fortunate to count the New York City Ballet among our most cherished collaborators, beginning with “Coppelia” and continuing with many of the beloved classics of the ballet repertoire. Our next program, on the evening of Friday, December 12, will offer a different aspect of the Balanchine legend, the 50th Annual Workshop performance of the renowned School of American Ballet.

Lincoln Kirstein, Rochester-born scion of an American department store family, was a lover of ballet from his early adulthood. He harbored many dreams: the creation of a great new ballet company; the infusion of new works into the performing repertoire; the creation of a school in which highly talented dancers would be taught by the greatest dancers and choreographers of the era. He undoubtedly did not know it at the time, but all his dreams would eventually come true starting the day in 1933 when he met choreographer George Balanchine in Paris. Russian-born and trained, Balanchine was already a force in the ballet world. And by force of his own personality Kirstein persuaded Balanchine to join forces with him, come to America, and create a world class ballet company together.

But before a ballet company could take hold, Balanchine needed the talent to fulfill his ambitious vision. The first product of the Kirstein-Balanchine collaboration was in fact the creation, in 1934, of the School of American Ballet. True to Kirstein's vision, the School quickly became the magnet for aspiring young dancers. And Balanchine, for his part, created his first choreography in the United States, “Serenade,” as a workshop piece for students at the School. The following year the team of Kirstein and Balanchine brought together a company of dancers who toured the U.S.A. under the group name The American Ballet. For three seasons the group was also the resident ballet company of the Metropolitan Opera. It was during that period that Balanchine presented his choreography for three scores by Stravinsky, the living composer for whom he created three of his most enduring ballets: “Apollo,” “Le baiser de la Fee” and “Card Game.”

The team of Balanchine and Kirstein came together once again, this time in 1946, to form Ballet Society, out of which----two years later and in collaboration with New York's City Center---emerged the New York City Ballet, with its home at New York's City Center (formerly the Mecca Temple) on West 55th Street. For more than 35 years, until his death in 1983, Balanchine served as the Company's Ballet Master in Chief, creating dozens of new works set to the music of history's finest composers. A signal event in the history of the Company occurred in 1954 when Balanchine introduced his choreography for Tchaikovsky's “The Nutcracker” as a Holiday celebration for the Christmas Season. This was an instant success and served to inspire ballet companies all over the country---indeed all over the world---to follow suit. “The Nutcracker” and the New York City Ballet are inextricably tied together and the nearly month-long series of performances have long since been a highlight of Christmas-time in New York.

In the early 1960s, when the New York State Theater (now named the David H. Koch Theater) arose as part of Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the New York City Ballet became one of its constituent institutions. Here, for an annual season of 23 weeks, the New York City Ballet performs under the artistic leadership of one of its former principal dancers, Peter Martins.

Throughout the long and inspirational alliance between Kirstein and Balanchine the original project that brought them together, the School of American Ballet, has flourished. Now housed in another building of the Lincoln Center complex, The Samuel B. and David Rose Building, the School has an enrollment of more than 350 hopeful young dancers from all over the United States and from around the world. Eagerly anticipated features of the School’s annual activities are public Workshop performances that take place in yet another of Lincoln Center’s buildings, the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. They are designed to showcase the ongoing excellence of the School's activities and are the full package, with costumes, scenery, lights and a symphony orchestra.

This, then, is the special event that awaits us on our next Live From Lincoln Center program scheduled for Friday evening, December 12. As always I urge you to contact your local PBS station to learn the exact date and time in your area.

Enjoy!

MARTIN BOOKSPAN

MARTIN BOOKSPAN was Commentator for Live From Lincoln Center for 30 years, since its very first broadcast in January, 1976 until our 30th Anniversary broadcast in 2006. Martin's lifelong love and appreciation for music and all the performing arts have fueled and shaped his distinguished career in both print and broadcast media, which has included associations with the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, classical music radio station WQXR, and television Channel 7 News and Channel 11 News in New York City. He is the author of 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers (Doubleday) and Consumer Reports Reviews: Classical Recordings (Consumers Union), as well as biographies of Zubin Mehta and André Previn, written with Ross Yockey.

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