Jesus Christ Superstar

As a long-time fan of Broadway musicals – my mom started taking me to NYC when I was just 14 – I was thrilled to see the Easter evening production of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC. To be fair, this is really more an opera than a musical, since there is no dialogue. For me, musicals were the gateway drug that led to my love of opera as a late teenager.

I have never liked hard rock, but that’s not a problem for me in this score. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a great lyricist, making sure that the thematic material doesn’t get lost in a sea of sound. That’s especially important in a musical style with off the charts decibels! As for the telling of the story, some may not care for Webber’s spin on the characters, which is decidedly more subjective than told in the Bible passages from which they derive. That subjective basis, however, forms how each character is defined by the choices of melody, harmony, and word painting. Richard Wagner would have to tip his hat. However, without equally good musicians to bring these qualities out all would be lost. That includes the amazing rock orchestra, playing in the multi-level cubes and strolling on stage.

I didn’t have a problem with the mish-mosh of voice casting that I read lambasted in other reviews. I found it really fun to see a cast of mostly non-Broadway singers acting in these roles. It’s not such a stretch since film versions of musicals often feature film stars over stage actors. I found the minimalist sets to be quite conducive to the on-stage action. That allowed a poignancy on those few dramatic moments, like the dangling ladder symbolizing Judas’s hanging and the opening and closing of the walls in the image of a cross after the crucifixion.

Some fault the musical for not including the resurrection, ending just after the crucifixion. I think Webber made the right decision to end the story where the dramatic tension peaks, instead of insisting on telling what Christians would consider a complete story. People aren’t going to be swayed in their faith by a Broadway show — but they might be challenged by it. I personally struggled with the depiction of Pilate as too harsh and Judas as too lenient. Either way, it made me feel that I could have been either of those two characters and am not sure if I would have made better choices.

In any event, thank goodness there was a choice on TV other than Ben-Hur this Easter. I hope that the success of this production means the possibility for more live musical theater, performed just as it was done in front of an audience instead of on a sterile soundstage!

Posted 2018-04-09

Organ Music for Lent and Easter

As you might imagine, there is an abundance of wonderful organ music for Lent and Easter. It would be pretty easy for me not to learn any new music for the season, and just recycle what I already have. But that doesn’t serve my goal to learn a lot of new music while I’m still young enough to do so. Plus, there are entire composers whose music I’ve avoided due to the difficulty or strangeness of it. Now is the time to build a few of these pieces into my repertoire.

Certainly, one composer whom I’ve avoided is César Franck. His music is not the most difficult to learn, but his works are long, have lots of tricky sections, and require lots of registration changes to be effective. There are other composers like Edwin Lemare, Marcel Dupré and Jean Langlais who seem to delight in how many notes they can throw on a page. With them, there are no easy pieces, even ones marked at slow or moderate tempos.

I’ve learned to choose only a couple of difficult new pieces a season, so I can do them well. The Pastorale and Prière of Franck are two of these. For everything else, I look at lists from prior years and choose a variety of pieces and difficulties to make sure that I don’t spend too many nights toiling away at the console.

So, as the pensiveness of Lent breaks into the jubilation of Easter, the keys may change from minor to major, but the work continues! In order to document my work, I’m recording and posting some of these recordings to my own Website. However, they are just for my monthly newsletter subscribers. It’s free and easy to subscribe (please do) and unsubscribe (but I hope you don’t).

Posted 2018-03-26