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The sound of American music

In today's Washington Post: Vocal Arts Society celebrates American vocal music - of a certain kind, by Anne Midgette.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 8, 2010; 7:08 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , festivals  
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“It would be wonderful to see a festival that truly celebrates all of the manifestations of American song, and that includes folk and rock and country along with the show tunes, traditional folk songs, spirituals and art songs, to represent the amazing cornucopia of music this country has produced.”
(Anne Midgette, WP, April 8, 2010)

Perhaps unbeknown to Anne Midgette and the Washington Post, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, here in Washington, D.C., does, in fact, host just such a festival on a year-round basis – like this Saturday’s Vocal Arts Society program, also free – through its Millennium Stage programming 365 days a year. With all due respect to Maryland’s Strathmore "Great American Song" series, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts’s commitment to American song in all of its history and diversity is much, much greater.

The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts’s Millennium Stage also collaborates with the U.S. Library of Congress to host an additional monthly free noon-time series of American folk music, which virtually always includes American vocal music. Over the next several months, that on-going festival includes Balla Kouyaté and traditional Malian griot music from Massachusetts, the New North Carolina Ramblers featuring songs of Charlie Poole, Marce Lacouture singing Cajun music from Louisiana and featuring the songs of Butch Hancock, Lula Landry, and Inez Catalon, Amuma Says No singing traditional and contemporary Basque music from Idaho and featuring singer and songwriter Jill Aldape, Steve Meisner performing and singing the Milwaukee-Slovenian Style Polka from Wisconsin, the Not Too Bad Bluegrass Band performing Bluegrass from Indiana, and the McIntosh County Shouters singing the Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout from Georgia.

Sadly, despite all of this American vocal creativity in the Nation’s Capital, the now greatly reduced Washington National Opera [whose unpaid back rent is now, apparently being forgiven by the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts administration and paid for by the American taxpayer denied the American opera promised to it and to Congress by the formerly national company], has its own private , bizarre, and very, very safe concept of American vocal creativity:

“The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program … provides a safe place for young professional artists to move beyond studying the theory of opera and into the practice of creating it [sic]”:

[They must mean safe from you-know-who – our uber critic.]

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 8, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

snaketime1, can I just point out how much I adore that you never use one word when ten will suffice? And that nothing is ever abbreviated?

Never the Kennedy Center- always the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (the 'Memorial' btw is redundant). Even the Kennedy Center uses the acceptable shorthand. I am concerned you may develop RSI from all this typing.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 8, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Hmm -- on Thursday Ann Midgette excoriates the Vocal Arts Society for, in her opinion, featuring only "the right kind" of American song in its "America Sings" festival, leaving out the "vernacular" of American music. Then on Friday the Vocal Arts Society presents a recital by Patricia Racette, the second half of which is done, as Joe Banno reports, precisely in the American vernacular, with both the singer and the piano miked and Racette clearly totally at home in this idiom. Even The New York Festival of Song, which Midgette congratulates as adventuresome, has never done anything like that (and Midgette does not mention, BTW, that the Vocal Arts Society annually presents Stephen Blier and the New York Festival of Song). Indeed, Banno suggests that Racette consider giving up the opera to become a pop singer full time. I believe that the Vocal Arts Society is owed something of an apology. Vocal Arts did exactly what Midgette blasted them for not doing.

In addition, Midgette talks about It being "almost a cliche to see young singers visibly relax at the end of their program when they finally get to songs in their own language and idiom." This, however, is often mistaken. Just as not just anyone with a voice can sing lieder (as Barbra Streisand learned when she released an album years ago called, if memory serves, "Classical Barbra"), so not just any classically trained singer can give a respectable account of, say, Gershwin or Rodgers and Hart. The genres, and the skills that it takes to deliver them, are different. The singers may relax, but my desire is to run from the room when I hear a classical singer attempt something like They Can't Take That Away From Me. You'll hear a better performance, usually, even from the most workaday band singers of the '30s and '40s. The unusual thing about Racette was that she was clearly at home in the pop (not jazz or swing) idiom; she suggested that she was a pop singer first, and I believe that.

Posted by: danjose | April 12, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

danjose: I certainly didn't intend to "excoriate" the Vocal Arts Society. I took their project as a jumping-off point for some thoughts about how the classical music field in general looks at American vocal music. It's a shame to have a thoughtful critical piece misread as an attack on a single organization, particularly when I ended it by recognizing the festival's achievements:

"The "America Sings" festival does a service by casting its net wide enough to demonstrate the ubiquity of American song on programs all over the city, showing how much it is already a part of the fabric even of our Eurocentric classical music programming. Perhaps it's a step toward gaining more respect for American vocal music and helping it embrace its true identity."

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 13, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

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