Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hey buds below, Up is where to grow...

  from a photographer's (and broadcaster's) notebook...

Spring brings new growth to trees along the Susquehanna River in northern Maryland

 Hey, Mother Nature, I'm talking to you. Yeah, you...

Oh well, since you've often been so nice to me when I'm wearing my photographer's cap, I'm going to address you with great deference and the utmost politeness.

You see, I just finished producing a VOA Learning English "This Is America" program featuring some wonderful Songs of Springtime. Some really great American standards sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett...

It was to coincide with the, umm, arrival of Spring, at least in the northern hemisphere. As an international broadcast and web service, we have to be careful about qualifying that, since we're heard and read south of the equator as well.

As I put the wraps on the program Saturday, it was quintessentially Springlike here on the east know, sunny and mild, a feeling of promise in the air for a lovely "pastel season."

But today was chilly and raw...once again.  The program had its first broadcast and appeared on the web site tonight at 8:30. Ironically, you threw another cold wave at us for tonight and the temperatures are tp plummet into the 20s, and our meteorologists are now talking about more snow arriving Tuesday.

Say, ol' Gal, Mommie Dearest, did you forget about our cherry blossoms? Our drawers and closets full of spring clothing? 

Well, I have great faith you'll come around, and even surprise us (one of these weeks!) with a genuinely delightful, genuinely spring-like...Spring.

Meantime, what fun I had producing this show! And just as I know I'll rejoice in re-discovering the balmy breezes of spring, it was so nice (if you were wondering about that headline up top) reacquainting myself with Alan Jay Lerner's sheer artistry as lyricist and Burton Lane's hand-in-glove music for "On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever." Oh yes, and the joy of watching and listening to the engaging actress Barbara Harris (she played Daisy Gamble, a young lady with ESP), singing to her flower pots, at first shyly, then with contagious conviction, in front of John Cullum, who played psychiatrist Mark Bruckner. Dr. Bruckner is mightily impressed by Daisy's ability to coax flowers out of those pots and predict phones about to ring, but ever so much more taken by her 18th century British incarnation Melinda Wells, but that's getting way ahead.

Suffice to say, when it occurred to me to launch my "Songs of Springtime" with "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here," it took me on a joyous trip of re-discovery...and back to an enchanting evening on Broadway at the Mark Hellinger Theater, where, as a young man in 1965, I had the pleasure to see Ms Harris, Mr Cullum, William Daniels, and all of the original cast in this charming musical.

By the way, this was after Lerner had lost his long-time composer Frederick Loewe (their last collaboration was "Camelot" in 1960), but one got the impression the chemistry with Burton Lane was felicitous, and certainly Lerner's masterful, often playful use of the English language was still in top form. 

I will always remember two long conversations (for my "Ember at Large" music programs on WETA) with Mr Lerner, the first in his New York office some years after "On a Clear Day" and again a bit later at the Kennedy Center, in which he related such an unbridled joy in the craft of lyric writing for some of Broadway's (and Hollywood's) finest examples of the American musical.

It's only right to point out that "On a Clear Day" was still of the Broadway cloth that produced songs of craft, beauty, and sophistication. You walked out into the Midtown Manhattan night humming or whistling genuine melody that - even decades later - can come back to you as if you'd just heard the song weeks, not decades ago. You also emerged from the theater with your hearing intact and your sensibilities un-trounced. You were not leaving some over-amplified rock concert parading as a "musical," or a show so devoid of recognizable music that one walked out whistling the special effects, but an evening of, well, enchantment, and affirmation of some of life's more positive (or poignant) values.

Deciding to launch with that tune also served to remind me of something else we have lost.

Regular readers of this wee bloggie are aware of how the mere mention of good music can set your scribe off on a tangent or five. I started out addressing Mother Nature, but I'm thinking now of another maternal figure, and I have to say, in some ways, I miss her - Ma Bell! You may remember the old gal. Through AT&T Long Lines, she tied our coasts together. Through Western Electric she gave us - well, leased to us might be more accurate - telephones that could still get a dial tone after being run over by a locomotive. But, to be less hyperbolic, telephones with microphones in the receivers that professional voice talent would not cringe while speaking into...she gave us phone booths, where we could air our angst without trotting it out in a world of screeching, tweeting, texting...pests.

Ah, but she also gave us "The Bell Telephone Hour" on TV. Now that was class. In putting together that Songs of Spring program, I came upon a video of a program in this series that actually featured songs from "On a Clear Day" with Ms Harris and Mr Cullum  - and no less a personage than Cyril Ritchard on stage with them, tying the songs together. And that powerful little time machine reminded me what a gem of a performer we had in Barbara Harris, when she was active on the musical stage.

This is early color videotape, or maybe even a kinescope, and what you're seeing is obviously many generations down, but do take a look and see if you can remain un-enchanted as Barbara Harris sings to her flowerpots!

Another absolutely lovely experience in putting this program together was going back to enjoy Sarah Vaughan's 1953 recording of Frank Loesser's "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year." This was from the time - as I pointed out to any young English learners - that this was the popular music played on the radio. While I procrastinate about integrating a good audio player into this wee bloggie, there's always audio from YouTube I can share with you and thanks, as always, to the many people with the exquisite taste to post treasures like this. Listen to Sarah's genuine phrasing, unaffected musicality, and respect for the Loesser lyric, all supported by the classy arrangement by Percy Faith for this Columbia recording. It doesn't get much better than this!

Thanks for letting me share these two musical gems. 

Oh, yes, and let me know if you see a crocus...or a rosebud...or a robin on the wing (even if he's wearing a heavy wool sweater!).

And if you'd like to learn more about the photo up top (available in gallery prints and as a new Photo Note Card) and see it in higher definition, here is a link to its page on Foto-Community.

©2014 Steve Ember

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