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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Concert Review: Knickerbocker is a Slam Dunk

Broadway stars light up a Kurt Weill rarity.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Arrival of Peter Stuyvesant at New Amsterdam. 
From Our Country by Benson J. Lossing. Pub. Johnson & Bailey, © 1895.
As the snow battered New York on Wednesday night, the Collegiate Chorale warmed Alice Tully Hall with the second of two performances of Kurt Weill's 1938 musical, Knickerbocker Holiday.

Conducted by James Bagwell and featuring a stellar cast of Broadway performers, this concert version of the little-known Weill show made a strong case for its future, highlighting the book's humor, political relevance and array of memorable tunes. The most famous of these is "September Song," one of Kurt Weill's most enduring melodies. It was sung here by Victor Garber in the role of Peter Stuyvesant, and was a heartbreaking highlight of the first act.

Yes, that Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam before it was turned over to the British and renamed. Knickerbocker Holiday takes a satiric, Gilbert and Sullivan-like look at the governor's regime. The plot features corrupt politicians, arbitrary hangings, a proposed wedding and an invasion by gin-fuelled, rifle-toting Indians from what eventually became Harlem.

This is a uniquely American take on Mikado-like politics, filtered through Kurt Weill's tuneful score. Musically, the work is just on this side of opera, with audible influences of Beethoven, Verdi, and even Bizet peppering the music. James Bagwell conducted, balancing the jazz rhythms of the work with the more European classical influences. (The fugue in the second act astounded.)

Mr. Garber was surrounded by a game cast. Bryce Pinkham brought an intelligent approach to the role of narrator Washington Irving, who comments ironically on events and frames the story as one of his tales. Kelli O'Hara and Ben Davis were an engaging pair of lovers. Although Ms. O'Hara's voice battled the orchestra and occasionally the choral backing, she was an engaging, emotional presence as Tina, the love interest.

Mr. Davis (the star of the recent Broadway revival of A Little Night Music) has a rich, baritone, and he used it to good effect as the argumentative Bromm. The opera's hero, he runs afoul of the draconian laws of Governor Stuyvesant and the absurd policies of the fledgling city council. He was well matched with Mr. Garber, who does not have the same level of voice. Instead, he sang with intelligence and depth, nuancing every word of his songs and approaching the comic dialogue with a dry, deadpan delivery.

Knickerbocker sank into obscurity after its premiere. One reason was the book's merciless take on the leaders of the world in 1938. Hitler and F.D.R. are both skewered, with the show making fun of writers who churned out books in prison and Roosevelt's New Deal efforts. In these troubled times, with a highliy charged political atmosphere in Washington powered by ugly rhetoric, this acid take on American politics should be heard more often.

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