The Great American Songbook

Are the songs of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Rodgers, Kern, Arlen, and all the others who have given us our “standards” as good as the songs of Schubert, Schumann (both of them),Brahms, Faure, Ravel and the other classical composers? How does one judge? What makes a song “good”? Is it that is is written well for the voice? Is it that the music itself is complex and unique? Is it that it is simple and elegant? It is the blend of music with words? Is it that a lot of people relate to it and perhaps remember it?

Are all the songs by all these different composers alike or different? The truth is, we don’t have answers to these questions.

Classical vocalists will sing Berlin, Porter and Gershwin in recitals as if they were the same as Wolf and Scarlatti. Does that make the songs “art songs” or does it just make the classical singer wrong about understanding the song? Aren’t they “art songs” on their own, sung as they were intended to be sung?

I personally feel that American songs deserve to be respected for what they are and sung the way they were intended to be sung. I don’t care for the “classicalization” of our songs, as they not only don’t need it, it gets in the way. I don’t think it’s creative to do that, I think it lacks creativity. If you take the sound you always make and bring it over into other styles of material unchanged, how creative is that? There is PLENTY of room to arrange them in any kind of personal expression, but if you sing them with classical vocal production, what good is that?

I have the same feeling about most “modernization” of opera. I don’t think most “modern” productions of traditional operas add anything. Mozart doesn’t need “enhancement” the likes of turning “Don Giovanni” into a production about the Mafia in the 1950s. Puccini is not better off when “La Boheme” takes place in a diner in Queens. I think it takes much more creativity and depth to stick with something in the same way that it has been presented for two hundred years and find, within that same old traditional presentation, a new perspective, slant or interpretation. THAT’S creative.

I long for someone to make an entire album or do a major concert performance of classical material that has been turned into jazz, rock, pop, country and other styles, just to see how the classical world would react. We did “An Die Musik” last year at the Voice Foundation Symposium and the version, sung by my friend Gabriele Tranchina, and arranged by her pianist husband, Joe, raised some eyebrows but was warmly received. Could this become a trend?

Karen Hall, who recently got her Doctorate at Columbia Teachers’ College, has just published an article in the current issue of the Journal of Singing (published by NATS) in which she sites the problems of trying to sing Music Theater styles with classical vocal education. She has developed a Music Theater Vocal Pedagogy text that addresses MT training but has also had to confront the enormous resistance that is still out there (true true) that says people who want to stand up for CCM styles and the training they require are ruining voices. How about the people who get up to perform the great standards and ruin them?

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