Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Mass enjoyment

Music remains fresh and vibrant as long as it continues to be presented for public appreciation.

To that end, I'm delighted to learn that Guaraldi's Jazz Mass will be presented again this weekend: 6 to 7:15 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at St. Stephen's Episcopal Pro-Cathedral, 35 S. Franklin Street, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania 18701 (570-825-6653).

The service will be hosted by Bill Carter and the Presbybop Quartet. The musicians will include Carter (piano), Mike Carbone (flute), Joe Michaels (bass) and Tyler Dempsey (drums), along with the St. Stephen's choir, under the direction of Mark Laubach.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that Carter was involved with both of the 50th anniversary presentations of Guaraldi's Mass, which took place during the late summer of 2015. Plenty of further details about those events can be found here and here.

Pennsylvania residents -- and anybody close enough to participate —- are encouraged to join Carter and Presbybop, as they present  Guaraldi's Jazz Mass in this extraordinary setting. Written six months before his soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Mass is a highly melodic composition, and the first jazz mass ever performed as part of an American church service.

It debuted May 21, 1965, at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. The music was recorded, but never written down. To mark the Mass' aforementioned 50th anniversary, Carter transcribed the music from original and unreleased recordings.

He remains just as excited today, as he was three years ago.

"We're looking forward to presenting Guaraldi's little-known Mass once again, in a worship setting," he said. "The invitation came from internationally known organist and church musician Mark Laubach. His parish is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and the church council wanted to do something unusual. So the church choir will sing 'Missa Marialis' from the old red Episcopalian hymnal, and Presbybop will supply Guaraldi's accompaniment.

"As I've been working through the material once again, I'm struck anew by its brilliance. Guaraldi's settings are quite melodic, and the harmonies are beguiling. The outstanding St. Stephen's choir is thrilled to sing this wonderful music, and I'm reminded of how important it is to keep this music in the air. 

"What a privilege this is!"

This is a rare opportunity to hear Guaraldi's composition in a worship setting similar to that where it first was conceived. All involved are pleased to offer this event during the 200th anniversary year of St. Stephen's.

For additional information, visit Presbybop or St. Stephen's Episcopal Pro-Cathedral.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Concerto-izing, Episode 2

Work on the newly commissioned Peanuts Concerto has proceeded smoothly, and Dick Tunney has kindly paused on occasion, in order to keep us up to date. (Read about the genesis of this project here.)

When last Dick checked in, he reported being “almost finished” with the second (Christmas) movement. “I did finish the piano portion, and sent it to Jeffrey [Biegel],” he said. “Lots of exclamation points and thumbs up from him.”

As of this moment, the piece’s premiere is scheduled for March 2019, “but there could well be a prior performance,” Dick adds, “depending on when the work is completed and ready for the stage.”

I was curious about his decision to begin with the middle movement (having naively assumed that one works on such a project from start to finish). He kindly sent a marvelously detailed reply, and I’ll turn the rest of this post over to him:

********

I began with this movement because I’m most familiar with the songs in the Christmas special. As I get to the end of this concerto, there will be times when I’ll be slogging my way through, and I never want to be doing that at the beginning of a project. Pace and momentum tend to keep my interest up; once I get a good bit of a piece under my belt, it’s always nice to look back and see the progress made.  

The plan to have a Christmas movement was there from the beginning, and building it to be a pull-out/stand-alone movement also was present from the outset. Placing it in the middle of the concerto probably is 90% in stone at this point, but I’m not ready for the cement to harden on that idea.  

The previous concerto that I did stayed pretty closely to typical concert form for a three-movement work: fast/slow/fast. As it stands right now, the Christmas movement isn’t exclusively slow. The anchor (of course!) is “Linus and Lucy,” which will appear in some form or fashion as a theme — or theme fragment — in each of the three movements.  

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Vince in a symphony hall!

This should be a very exciting year for Guaraldi fans.

Nashville-based musician, composer and arranger Dick Tunney has been commissioned to create what is being dubbed a Peanuts Concerto: an ambitious work that will morph Guaraldi’s most recognizable themes into a symphonic fantasy for solo piano and orchestra.

Jeffrey Biegel
The project was spearheaded by Tunney’s colleague Jeffrey Biegel, a celebrated New York-based pianist/composer whose accomplishments and accolades would tax even the most encyclopedic biographer.

“He’s a tremendous player,” Tunney notes, during a recent chat, “an off-the-charts, crazy-good Juilliard artist. When he gets something under his hands, he owns it.”

“I read an interview with Charles Schulz’s son Craig, back in 2013 or so,” Biegel explains, picking up the narrative. “Craig was struck by something that worried his father, who at one point wondered aloud, ‘Do you think they’ll remember me?’

“Well, in his case, of course. But the thing is, everything you’ve done, when you pass, it’s over. People will think less about you, and what you’ve done, if you’re not around any more. I sent Craig an email, and told him that really hit home, because not only should Schulz and Peanuts go on, but what about the music? Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts music is either locked up in those specials for eternity, or they’re only heard in orchestral versions usually adapted from the Christmas special.

“There’s not a new performance work at all, based on Guaraldi’s Peanuts music ... and certainly not a concerto for piano and orchestra. So I’ve been commissioned to take the music from those TV specials, and place them into a musical work that orchestras can book and present to audiences.”

Biegel has developed an artistic business model that has been successful for 20 years: He initiates projects with composers; raises all the money from donors and orchestras, to pay the composer to write a concerto for him; and then he (Biegel) gets to play it with the orchestras involved.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Looking back Grace-fully

Rough drafts — whether of music, artworks or written material — generally deserve to be seen only by their creators. After all, the artist in question wishes to put the best foot forward, and it’s hardly fair to view warts-and-all preliminary efforts.

(Which is why, just in passing, I had absolutely no interest in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, when released in July 2015. Ample evidence existed, prior to publication, that it was an early draft of what eventually blossomed into To Kill a Mockingbird ... despite the efforts of opportunists who insisted, quite falsely, that it was a wholly different “lost novel.”)

All this notwithstanding, exceptions crop up every once in awhile; what follows is one of them.

Way back in the day, John Leydecker was one of many youthful members of the St. Paul’s Church choir, which rehearsed extensively with Guaraldi and later performed the debut of his Jazz Mass at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, on May 21, 1965. John’s mother Mary was a part-time journalist; several months after that event, she wrote an informative article about Guaraldi, the choir and the evolution and presentation of the Mass. Her article — and numerous photos — were submitted to both The Episcopalian (a monthly church journal published between April 1960 and March 1990) and the Marin Daily Independent Journal. If the piece appeared in the former, I’ve not yet been able to track it down; it did, however, get published in the latter on October 23, 1965.

What appeared in the Journal, however, is significantly different than Mary Leydecker’s original draft: something I’m able to state with certainty, since John kindly provided a copy of the original typewritten manuscript. It’s much more laid-back and conversational than the Journal version, and opens a charming window into those historic events.

Mary Leydecker’s version appears here, for the first time ever; it’s followed by PDFs of the quite opulent Journal spread (with lots and lots of photos ... a generous use of space that we simply don’t see in newspapers any more).

John also shared some additional photos that you’ll find below, all published for the first time.

Enjoy!

********

BEAUTIFUL, MAN!
By Mary Leydecker

The little jazz musician peered over the grand piano through a haze of smoke. He was dressed in an old sweater, jeans and tennis shoes. His mustache and sideburns almost covered the part of his face not hidden by immense dark glasses. Nearby a bass player leaned on his instrument, and a drummer grinned as there was a pause in the rehearsal.

However, these three were not in their native habitat of nightclubs or recording studios, but in a large wood-paneled music room of a suburban Episcopal church; sharing the room with them were rows and rows of bright-faced children, who followed intently the instructions of their choir director, a young man in a sweat shirt with a whistle hanging from his neck.

This scene was repeated many times this year, as this group of people of many backgrounds gathered to prepare a “new setting for the Holy Communion.” The product of their labors has been recorded and is now a nationwide success under the label Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral.

The story of how this unusual musical undertaking came into being goes back many months. As Grace Cathedral in San Francisco was nearing completion of its building program, a committee was appointed to mark the occasion with a series of special events. The Rev. Charles Gompertz, a young priest who was at that time curate of a suburban parish, was one of the members. When another committee member suggested a “holy hootenanny” for the young people of the diocese, Father Gompertz presented a different idea.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The magic — and music — of carriage returns

Life is full of charming surprises.

The Los Angeles Times runs an annual compilation of overlooked films that remained “Under the Radar” during the previous 12 months. Eight critics selected five titles each this year: Some lists are all over the genre map, while others — such as that from animation historian Charles Solomon — are devoted entirely to a given specialty.

The overarching principle is apt: As a film critic myself, I’m far more aware of indie and art house releases than most folks ... but more than half of these 40 titles were new to me. And quite a few piqued my interest.

One did so immediately: California Typewriter, a documentary by director Doug Nichol, which critic Gary Goldstein insists was “egregiously denied a place on this season’s documentary Oscar shortlist.” I read the article the day it was published — Thursday, December 28 — and immediately checked our streaming options. Lo and behold, its available via Amazon Video (and iTunes), and we watched it that very evening.

Isn’t the modern world amazing? In times past, you’d never even find out about most documentaries, let alone have any opportunity to view them. And now they’re just a few clicks away.

Anyway...

Nichol’s film is indeed delightful. The narrative is split between two topics: the Berkeley, California, store that gives the film its title, which has provided service and sales for all makes and models of typewriters, fax machines, calculators and the like since 1949, and which has been run since 1981 by Herbert L. Permillion III; and affectionate — and often droll — visits with typewriter collectors and purists such as musician John Mayer, playwright Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian David McCullough, and artist/sculptor Jeremy Mayer.

Watching Tom Hanks dither over his massive collection, while trying to decide upon just one “desert island typewriter,” is a hoot and a half.

It also pays to be one of Hanks’ good friends. When somebody expresses genuine affection for one of the humble, old-school machines, Hanks makes it a gift. With the proviso that the recipient must use it, for old-school correspondence.

These individuals also eulogize the “experience” of their beloved typewriters, insisting that they’re essential to the artistic process, in a way that computers, laptops, tablets — and so forth — cannot match. (Except for Jeremy Mayer, the outlier, who cannibalizes typewriters in order to re-purpose the components into assemblages that range from life-size small birds to life-size human figures. With results that demand to be seen.)

You’re undoubtedly wondering what this brief film review is doing in a blog devoted to Vince Guaraldi.

Anyway...

So there we were, Constant Companion and I, thoroughly enjoying this film and its collection of colorful on-camera subjects, along with Nichol’s savvy use of background music: Cy Coleman’s cover of “Playboy’s Theme,” Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies,” Bill Evans’ iconic reading of “Stolen Moments,” and even a selection by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra (for real).

And, suddenly — during one of the Berkeley visits to Herb’s store — we heard the gentle and unmistakable melody of Guaraldi’s “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” from his Warner Bros. album Oh, Good Grief!

Nor was that all. Somewhat later, as Herb and his adult daughters — Carmen and Candace — decorated their store for the holidays, Nichol inserted Guaraldi’s instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here,” from his Charlie Brown Christmas score.

And that’s why you’re reading these words.

So: Aside from quality filmmaking chops, Nichol obviously has excellent taste in music.

I highly recommend this little film ... and not merely for the opportunity to hear some well-placed Guaraldi excerpts. The film is a thoroughly engaging — and informative — eulogy for a technological workhorse whose day, alas, has come and gone. Likely for good. (But not entirely. Thankfully.)