Saturday, July 14, 2018

In Nashville, It's Still Grand


On a trip to Nashville this summer, I finally made it to a performance at the Grand Old Opry, but it was a long time coming.

Elvis at the gates of Graceland
On the evening of Aug. 16, 1977, I paid homage by driving past the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, home of the Opry for 31 years. The radio was playing Elvis songs, as was every other station on the dial, no matter the format - rock and roll, blues, gospel, country, easy listening.


I had arrived in town a few hours before, heading east on the road across America, interviewing for reporter jobs at newspapers along the way. Earlier that day, I'd visited the Memphis Commercial Appeal and driven past the musical-note gates of Graceland, just to see the legendary house where Elvis lived.

Upon arriving in Nashville, I phoned the Banner's editor, Bracey Campbell, and identified myself as calling from the Associated Press, since I was working for AP Broadcast in New York at the time. 

"You must be calling about Elvis," he said. "Why, Mr. Campbell?" I responded. "He's dead!" the editor said. "Oh, Mr. Campbell, that's terrible, Elvis being dead and all. We had scheduled my job interview for tomorrow," I said. This was, understandably, the least of Mr. Campbell's concerns. "Honey, I got more here than I can say grace over. I can't give you your job interview. "

So that night, not having much else to do, I drove around Nashville, twirling the radio dial. Even then, the Grand Ole Opry was no longer at the red brick Ryman, having moved in 1974 a few miles out of town to something called Opryland. Downtowns were deteriorating and theme parks with car-friendly acreage were on the rise.


Upon my return, I discovered Opryland was long gone and my conference was booked into a huge hotel called the Gaylord Opryland Resort, but the theater was right next door.

The Opry started in 1925 as a live broadcast on WSM radio featuring an hour of "barn dance" music. It followed a classical music program, and one night announcer George Hay said the grand opera program would be followed by the "grand ole opry."

Riders in the Sky
It was a Saturday night staple for decades, where Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb reigned. Today, the Opry runs four nights a week in the same live-broadcast format, mixing the biggest stars in all sorts of music genres with up-and-comers. 

Tickets were remarkably easy to get for a Saturday night. It's like a vaudeville or TV variety show, with each act doing 10-15 minutes. We took our seats in the pews, a style transferred from the Ryman. I was beyond excited, ready to experience American musical history.

However, not being real country music fans, my daughter and I agreed we would each get a point if we had heard of a particular act.

The host of the opening segment was Jeannie Seely, a dynamic, 78-year-old veteran of the Opry, tough and funny as hell. But there was also a male radio announcer reading broadcast ads for such products as Springer Mountain Farms chicken between sets.

Seely introduced The Sisterhood, the duo Ruby Stewart (daughter of Rod Stewart) and Alyssa Bonagura, whose soaring harmonies were more rock-tinged folk than classic country. They just made their Opry debut last year. 

Banjo player Mike Snider took the stage with his group, beginning with self-deprecating humor, assuring us that his group would not "over-entertain" us. Snider, of course, then launched into banjo riffs that proved his National Banjo Champion credentials.

Next up was an old-timey Western group, Riders in the Sky, complete with chaps and amusing patter. I was starting to warm to a show that clearly welcomed performers in their 70s who still had a lot to give. 

A couple of times, between other acts, the Opry Square Dancers filled me with joy as they pranced through their paces in teal satin costumes on a stage that really didn't have a lot of room for square dancing. The Opry stage production, however, was absolutely top-notch -- especially the sound, which transmitted every note and voice with absolute clarity. 

The people sitting around us were from Tennessee and Iowa, enthusiastically into the music. By the way, the Opry is apparently perfectly all right with people snapping cell phone photos during the show, as I looked around and saw lots of folks doing just that. Other acts were Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press, bluegrass group Dailey & Vincent, TV star Charles Esten and comedian Heather Land.  

For me, the best came at the end. Charley Pride is 84 and one of the very few black country music stars -- a situation that occurred when he started out in the 1970s and exists to this day. In her autobiography, Loretta Lynn pointedly said she thought Pride was good for country music, to prove "it belongs to everybody." But as I looked around the theater, it appeared the audience was overwhelmingly white.

Still, Pride is a big star, yet he can amble onto the Opry stage, smoothly sing a couple of songs and uphold decades of history by himself. 
Jamey Johnson

The final singer's name had only crossed our path the day before, as we were waiting for breakfast at the local Cracker Barrel. A friendly young man from Mississippi insisted we listen to a video of Jamey Johnson, who looks like he just came down from the mountain.

Johnson and his acoustic guitar stood at the WSM microphone and simply held the audience spellbound with his deep baritone singing voice and storytelling. He sang one of his hits, "In Color," about a grandfather looking through the black-and-white photos of his life, saying "you should have seen it in color." I swear even men were weeping.

I had set aside any thoughts of politics as I attended the Opry, wanting simply to experience the music on its own terms. Johnson expressed the best of country music: stories about people that ring true. "In Color" may or may not have been based on an actual person, but the people listening to it clearly were walking through the histories of their own families. 

I ended up with two points (Charley and Jamey) and Flo had one (Jamey). In the next post: we attend a musical and spiritual experience with an audience of a different color. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

A family affair

Mozart and Sly Stone may not have much in common besides music, but it was Sly's hit "It's a Family Affair" that ran through my head after Distinguished Concerts International NY's (DCINY) latest concert, at Carnegie Hall.

The performance, titled "Perpetual Light: The Requiems of Mozart and Duruflé," was the second in DCINY's tenth-anniversary year, which is playing on the concept of light in  a couple of its 20 programs.

As I wrote in this post about singing in DCINY's "Messiah," the company invites choirs from around the world to perform in New York, maintains a regular orchestra and engages soloists.   

At "Perpetual Light," the 250+ singers on stage came from 20 choirs (U.S., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, U.K.). Many family members were in attendance, buoyant with pleasure at seeing a relative onstage in the glamorous venue.

At intermission, I met two ladies from Louisiana, there to support an 87-year-old mother-in-law. The program listed the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir from Lake Charles, La., which also had a 92-year-old member in the concert, the ladies said. 

A young man named Chaz Adams, from San Francisco, was there for his mom, Ingrid Gosney of Kalama, Wash., not too far from Portland, Ore. (Portland Choir). For her, performing at Carnegie Hall was "a dream come true," he said.

The invited choir members support the concert financially. To its credit, DCINY staff maintain a professional but warm atmosphere while handling 3,500-4,500 singers a year. You could call it a family.

The real bottom line lies in this question: is the music of high quality? The answer, with a couple of qualifications, is "yes."

DCINY supports and enhances its amateur singers with solidly professional conductors, orchestra musicians (especially concertmaster Jorge Ávila) and soloists. If my experience in December is any guide, the choirs generally have been working on the music at home for weeks before coming together to rehearse in New York for a couple of days before the concert.

For me, the Mozart Requiem towers above all others in its high drama and emotion. There is not much going gently into that good night in the work that Mozart was composing even on his death bed.

Maestro James M. Meaders set an exciting pace in the "Dies irae" ("day of wrath") and brought out the lovely melodic line in the "Hostias" section. Soloists Maribeth Crawford (soprano), Ceclia Stearman (mezzo-soprano), Shawn Mlynek (tenor) and Patton Rice (bass) navigated their parts expertly, but Crawford projected most fully into the hall.

The choir sang with real feeling, but often the precision wasn't quite there that exists when a group sings together regularly, and it seems the singers gave way to the temptation to blast. I recall from my experience that maintaining piano and varying the dynamics, according to the conductor's rehearsal instructions, sometimes was forgotten in the excitement of the moment. 

However, the singers really seemed to gel in the Duruflé, conducted by Jean-Sébastien Vallée, with its echoes of Gregorian chant. Stearman really shone in a sublime "Pie Jesu," scored for accompanying solo cello and organ, and the soprano section stood out in the "In Paradisum."

One advantage of these family events is the presence of young people in the audience, and (a few) in the choir. A girl, perhaps 15, sat in front of me, intently absorbing the music. Across the aisle sat one girl with blue hair and another with fuschia hair. It may not be explicitly stated in DCINY's mission, but the "parent" organization is also raising the classical music children of the future.