CAE Pops! Always Leave them Laughing Program Notes

Quotes handily sum up what you’re trying to accomplish, but who knew that our concert title actually started out as a song? George M. Cohan, who wrote hits like “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” penned “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye” in 1903. Though the song itself has faded from memory, the title sums up this concert perfectly. Humor, of course, is completely subjective. What strikes one person as funny can leave another confused, offended, or totally cold. Sometimes it depends on how much you “get” what is being spoofed, exaggerated, or otherwise mangled. Other times, goofiness in words or music needs no explanation at all.  On this concert, we present a little of everything.

“Modern Music,” by Boston’s William Billings (1746-1800), shows that humor in choral music dates back at least to the 18th century. Many regard the self-taught Billings as the first American composer. Not until 1770 did the first collection of music entirely composed by an American appear, when Billings published The New England Psalm Singer; he usually came up with his own idiosyncratic words as well as tunes. In addition to hymns, he published patriotic songs, anthems, and even pieces that made fun of his own style. “Modern Music” (1781) comes from his collection The Psalm-Singers’ Amusement and cheerfully notes his own frequent changes of meter and tempo and his fondness for particular keys. It also asks shamelessly for applause!

We have sung many works by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) over the years–hardly surprising since many consider him a leading American choral composer. He has created “virtual choirs” that allow singers from around the world to sing together online, and his works range from the hypnotically gorgeous “Sleep” to the intense drama of “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.” Yet nothing prepared us for the profundity of his settings of poetry by American master, Ogden Nash (1902-1971). Whitacre has written of this project: “I’ve always dreamed of writing a substantial collection of choral works that might enter the standard choral repertoire, something with the depth and passion of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals and the charm and timelessness of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes.” We are sure you’ll agree that he has succeeded with Animal Crackers.

P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?), the twenty-first of J.S. Bach’s twenty children, composed in many genres, including opera (Oedipus Tex) and works for piano (the Erotica Variations) and orchestra (the 1712 Overture). We would know little of this towering figure without the efforts of his alter(ed) ego, Very Full Professor Peter Schickele (b. 1935). His recordings of P.D.Q. Bach’s compositions have won four Grammy Awards, though, thankfully, not for music. This evening’s two madrigals come from The Triumphs of Thusnelda, inspired by TheTriumphs of Oriana, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. An 18th-century nobleman, Count Pointercount, wanted a similar collection dedicated to his late wife Thusnelda, who had asphyxiated while holding a high note far too long. Unfortunately, the madrigal as an art form had been dead for nearly 200 years, but young P.D.Q. did not realize it, leaving us with this unique example of 18th-century madrigal art.

Performer Kristin Chenoweth commissioned two of the songs on our program. She began her career in New York in musicals, winning a Tony Award as Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally in a revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. She introduced the first, “Taylor the Latte Boy,” on a CD in 2005. The songwriters Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, who also share credit for the popular “Alto’s Lament,” drew on a real-life situation they often observed at a Starbucks they frequented. This team has created stage musicals as well as songs for animated Disney features.

Although widely respected as a serious composer, conductor and organist, Kurt Knecht admits that he is best known for “Manly Men”–and likely always will be–because the piece allows the men of any ensemble to have a lot of fun. The song satirizes typical writing for men’s ensembles and then shows off the unique vocal qualities of first and second tenors, baritones, and basses. Throwing in parodies of favorites like “La Donna è Mobile,” “The Toreador Song,” pseudo-barbershop, and more doesn’t hurt either.

Broadway-style shows and songs have inspired parodies too, for several reasons. First, the tunes themselves have to be catchy and memorable, and sometimes they all but cry out for snarky new words. Stars in musicals often have distinctive styles or vocal quirks that lend themselves to good-natured kidding. And the plots of many great shows can veer toward melodrama. Push the extreme emotions just a little further, and a dramatic moment turns ridiculous. We’re happy to join this proud tradition.

Eric Lane Barnes is a writer, composer, and lyricist who in recent years has directed and performed with Captain Smartypants, a gay vocal comedy group in the Seattle Men’s Chorus. A smarty pants attitude definitely shines through “Lambscapes.” Like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that we performed last December, with each day done in a different musical style, “Lambscapes” sets a popular children’s song in several styles—Gregorian chant (in Latin, of course), Handel (we think you’ll recognize the model), Schubert (possibly based on “The Erlking”), and Verdi (the drinking song from Traviata). That lamb never knew what hit him.

The four songs in “Love Lost” by Paul Sjolund (b. 1935) illustrate the paradox that humor often grows out of disappointment, disillusionment, and downright cynicism. Nearly all the poems and short stories by Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) reflect her jaded view of romantic love, including “One Perfect Rose.” Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947) was a composer, poet, and screenwriter, with over thirty film scripts to his credit as well as songs for the musical The Gay Divorcee; the couples in Sjolund’s songs, however, seem fated for less happy outcomes. Sjolund is best known for arrangements of church music, so the ironic “Love Lost” is not typical of his work. Maybe he wanted to cut loose for a change?

Tom Lehrer (b. 1928) began writing humorous songs while working on a graduate degree in mathematics at Harvard. His success performing at fraternity parties prompted him to record a dozen of his songs at his own expense and to sell the records at Cambridge news stands. No radio stations would play his songs, which they considered to be in bad taste (as nearly all of them were), but the college students, first at Harvard and then around the country, made him a cult favorite.  Lehrer reached his largest audience in the 1960s when a TV program called That Was the Week That Was regularly used his more political songs to satirize everything from pollution to pornography to Vatican II.

“The Girl in 14G,” by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Dick Scanlan, draws on Kristin Chenoweth’s own experiences of apartment living in Manhattan, as well as her training as a coloratura soprano. The three met while collaborating on a musical adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Tesori is the most honored female theatrical composer in American history, with five Tony nominations and a recent win for the serious musical Fun Home. This song offers another example of the humor of desperate situations.

“Mashed Potato/Love Poem” comes from a set of three songs called Play with Your Food by the prolific Paul Carey, the founder of Vox Caelestis, a professional women’s ensemble in Chicago. Carey’s numerous works include both sacred and secular music, and he has made something of a specialty of compositions for children and young musicians. Sidney Hoddes published the poem in a small collection titled Menu in 1985, but he had long been part of Liverpool’s arts and music scene, hosting open mic poetry readings at the Cavern Club where he hung out with the Beatles in the early 1960s. This song seems to continue the theme of “Love Lost,” but, to quote the Bard, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

— Susan Wladaver-Morgan