Written on May 14, 2011 – 4:45 am | by Cameron Hussey
OAKLAND — A one-of-a-kind outfit, the Oakland East Bay Symphony opened its season in October with a special guest soloist named Carlos Santana. Friday night at the Paramount Theatre, it closed the season with a spectacle.
As packed as shelves at Costco, the stage was populated by 60 instrumentalists, 120 singers in a pair of choruses, plus a dozen singing soloists, all under the baton of music director Michael Morgan. He led a performance of “Street Scene,” Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” as the composer called it, about tenement life in New York City in 1946.
In a word, it was long.
Long, even though this was a pared-down concert adaptation of Weill’s amalgam of opera and musical theater. With a book by playwright Elmer Rice, who collaborated on the lyrics with poet Langston Hughes, “Street Scene” opened on Broadway in 1947, ran for 148 performances, won a couple of Tony awards (competing with “Brigadoon” and “Finian’s Rainbow”) and still gets revived from time to time. It’s regarded by some as a masterpiece.
I’m not so sure.
Yes, it is an intriguing piece, inspired by Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1929 of the same title. And it retains some relevance: As the tenants, many of them immigrants, debate and sing about socialism, birth control and immigration, today’s Red State-Blue State debates leap to mind. And there’s no escaping the tragedy of it all: The dreams and love affairs of the impoverished tenement dwellers lead nowhere.
But Weill’s absorption of American musical styles — a process that began in his native Germany and accelerated after he fled the Third Reich and settled in New York — feels chameleonlike in “Street Scene.” He absorbed much into the opera: black spirituals, Gershwin and Victor Herbert, big band jazz, Broadway soft-shoe numbers. He paid tribute to soaring Puccini, too, and dipped into his own background in the nerve-racking art songs of the Berlin cabaret era.
Yet the 26 numbers performed Friday are an awfully mixed bag. (Incidentally, they stretched out over two and a quarter hours, not including intermission.)
The best are stunning. The very first number, “Ain’t it Awful, the Heat?,” is a lament (despite some amusing lyrics), aching in the manner of Gershwin’s “Gone, Gone, Gone.” Then there’s “Somehow I Never Could Believe,” a long-lined heartbreaker, passionately put across Friday by soprano Kristen Clayton, lustrous-voiced in the role of Mrs. Maurrant, a tenderhearted and abused wife.
Memorable, too, is the ballad “Lonely House.” As the teenage Sam Kaplan — in love with Mrs. Maurrant’s daughter, Rose — tenor Thomas Glenn conducted a master class here with his crystal clear enunciation and easy climb of Weill’s melodic escalator.
Beyond that, the pickings got slim. Many of the numbers are charming enough, but often sounded generic or blandly chaste and dated. They stretched on and on — as did much of Rice’s goody-two-shoes dialogue, mercifully cut by Morgan who periodically set down the baton to act as narrator, filling in the plot line. And with the dozen lead singers standing at the front of the stage, each singing into a microphone, there was another problem: the sound system.
Tinny throughout, it became overloaded for numerous ensemble numbers, including Weill’s ace “Ice Cream Sextet.”
I’m sure it’s a matter of economy. But with so much effort going into the production (and, to boot, there was only a single performance), it’s a shame in this day and age to subject an impressive cast and the 2,300 ticket holders on hand to such a low-tech production.
Would it have been better not to have seen “Street Scene?” Of course not. Morgan arguably is the most freethinking programmer in the Bay Area; he takes chances, and that’s what makes his orchestra exciting over the long haul.
Friday, his musicians played at the top of their game, bringing out the color and detail in Weill’s score, which deftly envelops the various numbers. The Oakland Symphony Chorus, directed by Lynne Morrow, performed ably, as did the 30 or so members of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir.
The fine cast had numerous standouts, including bass Kirk Eichelberger (as Mr. Maurrant, the lout who winds up murdering his wife and her lover) and young soprano Julie Adams, very much the sunny ingénue as Rose, his daughter. She seemed nervous at times; Adams should relax and let her plush, layered voice shine through.
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