The Musicians of Ma’alwyck opened the Music at the J series Sunday afternoon at the Jewish Community Center in a pleasure-filled concert dedicated to tunes written by some of the most significant Jewish composers of the 20th century, who wrote for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films.
Violinist and MOM artistic director Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz introduced each tune and gave a brief backdrop to the large crowd on the composer and the tune. She chose many very famous songs interspersed with violin/piano pieces that are rarely, if ever, performed today.
Soprano Gene Marie Callahan and baritone Charles Schwartz provided the vocals. Each sang with appropriate emotion. Schwartz was especially smooth in his phrasing with excellent diction. Thomas Savoy provided a strong anchor at the piano, often with perfect cocktail piano-style accompaniments.
Although the first tune was Irving Berlin’s “Say It with Music” from the 1921 Music Box Revue, which had many of the earmarks of a vaudeville tune, it was nothing like his “Blue Skies” from Rodgers and Hart’s 1926 musical “Betsy.”
That tune is still so famous that even Willie Nelson has his own rendition. What makes a tune become part of a vocal lexicon that generations of singers and the public continue to enjoy it? Barker Schwartz didn’t get into that discussion, but followed it up with violinist Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from “Porgy and Bess” (1935).
Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me” (1926) is another tune for the ages, but Savoy’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me” from the 1924 “Scandals” Revue toyed with the harmony a bit much.
Gregory Stone’s arrangement of Arthur Schwartz’s “Dancing in the Dark” (1931) for violin and piano was interesting. Did strolling restaurant violinists do this one? Frederick Loewe’s 1940s “Heather on the Hill” from his hit musical “Brigadoon,” Harold Arlen’s “Let’s Fall in Love” and Jule Styne’s “I’ve Heard that Song Before” from the 1942 movie “Youth on Parade” mixed the familiar with the lesser known.
Barker Schwartz also included the rarity of Marion Bauer’s 1912 violin piece, “Up the Ocklawaha” for then-superstar violinist Maud Powell (1867-1920), a child prodigy who later premiered the concerti of Dvorak and Bruch. Armed with plenty of chutzpah, she at 18 walked into an all-male New York Philharmonic rehearsal and so stunned them with her playing that she was hired on the spot to do the Bruch.
Sigmund Romberg’s “Drinking Song” from the 1954 “Student Prince,” which featured Mario Lanza’s voice in the movie, was followed with two that Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made famous: “Lover Come Back to Me” (“New Moon” 1928) and “Will You Remember” (“Maytime” 1937). There was also Kurt Weill’s violin “Youkali Tango” from a 1930s French show, his “Westwind” from “One Touch of Venus” of the 1940s and his 1945 hit “You’re Far Too Near to Me” from his flop “Firebrand of Florence.” Weill’s tunes impressed with their more chromatic lines and extended vocal ranges.
The other two shows on the series are Oct. 28 with flute and guitar and Dec. 9 with cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray. MOM opens its regular season Sept. 28 at the 1st Reformed Church in a program of Handel, Debussy and a Savoy world premiere.