The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Pop! Go the Classics - May 6, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
Choral concerts can present music that is lulling, rousing, evocative, nostalgic, comforting, menacing even – the list goes on and on, and a good concert presents a variety of moods. The singing can be precise and expressive, and provide beautiful tones and blends. But how about fun? Some of the most entertaining choral concerts I’ve witnessed are those that are unabashed in their pursuit of fun. The fun might be in a straightforward attempt to get laughs, but the fun can also be in compositions or arrangements or presentations full of wit, or whimsy, or an extraordinary degree of creativity.
Last Sunday night, Samantics put on a concert in Sacramento that was full of fun for me. “Pop! Go the Classics” was another tour de force for Director Sam Schieber, another example of his extraordinary ability to dig up obscure and wonderful music. The announcement of the concert set the stage: "Over the last century or so, Chopin, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, and many other great classical composers have been subjected to having their music adapted into popular songs. While the practice has produced delightful--and horrifying--examples of adapted songs from every decade, the two main eras of adaptation activity were the 1910s (Ragtime) and the 1940s (Big Band Swing), both of which produced many fine songs and entertaining novelties. Samantics will offer a wide range of selections of these adaptations from all eras and by a number of classical composers. Bach, Brahms and Beethoven will be represented, and some famous operatic melodies will also be heard--more or less. Just wait until you hear what happened to the melodies of Madam Butterfly."
We heard, and it was fascinating – and often hilarious. Sam directed from the piano (as usual) throughout the concert, and often introduced a piece by playing – or having the chorus or a soloist sing – at least part of the original classical composition. This was important because often the original was all but unrecognizable in the popularized version of the music. And often it was almost shocking to learn the classical origin of a popular song (like Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” being derived from Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21”).
Only about one-third of the popular pieces were familiar to me. Some fine compositions had the misfortune of being part of a Broadway musical that flopped. Some were so corny that they couldn’t stand changing public tastes. A few were novelty songs like the take-off on Beethoven’s “Minuet in G major” that was reborn as “Then I Wrote the Minuet in G” – wonderfully funny, but not designed to last.
Sam gave the history of many of these adaptations, and brought a note of refined humor to the show. He even shared some of the kitchy covers of the printed music. The singers helped a lot with the humor: the soloists, especially, brimmed with personality.
The finale of this concert was truly amazing. Starting from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major,” Sam constructed a medley of 12 popular songs that borrow elements from Pachelbel. And capping the evening was Walter Murphy’s rousing “A Fifth of Beethoven.”
As usual, the printed program was full of informative material that went well beyond the content of the concert. But the program was also a bit of a tease. The version given to the audience listed only the original classical compositions – not the names of the songs derived from them. This kept people guessing and reinforced the delighted surprise when the classical melody morphed into its cousin popular tune. Fortunately, chorus members handed out a “key” that linked original and derivative, and you can view both the whole program and the supplement at these links: program and supplement.
Sam Schieber, in addition to all his other musical and artistic talents, excels at finding obscure, wonderful and “wonder-at,” pieces, and weaving them into an entertaining program. As a result, this concert, like the last several that I’ve attended, was just pure fun.