Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Two One Act Operas:-
The Mighty Casey
A Question of Taste (1987-89)
soloists (listed at end of review)
Juilliard Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec Juilliard Opera Center, December 1990.
DELOS DE1030 [CD1 75.32; CD2 54.11]
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Schuman stands as a headline symphonist of the last century. In his Third Symphony he stands shoulder to shoulder with Roy Harris, his beloved teacher.

Schuman is not renowned for his operatic output nor, even more broadly, for his vocal music although there are recordings of his songs and choral music. Music theatre and Tin Pan Alley were the centre of his youthful life. During his high school period he formed and played in a jazz ensemble. He wrote more than forty popular songs with Broadway lyricist Frank Loesser. His apt talent for the catchy and canny song shows through these two works.

The recordings derive from live performances given as a double bill at the Juilliard Opera Centre on 12, 14 and 16 December 1990. These were to mark Schuman's eightieth birthday. Schuman heard tapes of Schwarz's Delos anthology (DE3115, Variations on 'America', New England, Symphony No. 5 and Judith). In a letter dated 16 January 1992, and excerpted in the booklet, Schuman lavishes high praise on Schwarz's direction of the orchestral music and of these two operas.

The orchestral role in A Question of Taste has all the Schuman hallmarks. The slowly sidling French horn underpinning the lovers' duet in 'I'm not a man to your father's taste' is but one tell-tale. Another is the melodramatic sphinx-like snarling howl when the cheating Pratt declares the wine-tasting wager is for the hand of the host's daughter. The voices of the singers are well suited and fresh with the only demerits being Elizabeth's Grohowski's Mrs Hudson (whose observant alertness saves the day) and Scott Wilde's Phillisto Pratt. Their fleshy operatic treatment strikes a slightly discordant note.

The grand dream waltz seems to be something of a US speciality witness Rodger's and Hart, Sondheim and Samuel Barber. Schuman contributes to that heritage at 3.14 in Track 6. The story, by the way, is by Roald Dahl. The libretto by J D McLatchy who also contributes the notes for his opera. Mention of Barber (a reference to his superb Souvenirs) also recalls his similar operatic brevity - the succinct A Hand of Bridge. The story of the rash and doomed wager works very well as an opera and there is all the tension you could want. The Bergian shine and shimmer of the strings at 8.20, after the bet is declared, speaks of the daughter's touching innocence and her misplaced faith. Schuman's language is traced and chased by atonality but it is in no sense arduous work. The exuberance of the waltz rakes and shakes the closing pages in a quintet buoyed up by joy and love in dazzling tinsel and gold.

Baseball's position in the American psyche is not perhaps what it was. In the 1950s, which is the era of The Might Casey, both Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem (the libretto was adapted by Jeremy Gury) and William Schuman's opera, baseball stood in relation to American popular culture as Football stands in relation to British society. Myths and heroisms, shames and victories are reflected into it.

I have known this work since the early 1980s when friends in the USA sent me a broadcast tape in which the work was presented as a cantata with soloists Robert Merrill and Rosalind Rees. The National SO were conducted by Antal Dorati on 6 April 1976 in Washington DC. The operatic premiere took place in Hartford, Connecticut on 4 May 1953.

Schuman writing nearly forty years before A Question of Taste is two rotations less astringent. Think of Copland's The Tender Land as a reference. Certainly Broadway is at work softening, at times, Schuman's usual challenging edge. He would not have found it difficult to tap into the idiom given his years with Frank Loesser. Once again the hallmarks proclaim Schuman time after time (try the pattering instrumentation on Track 3 at 3.03 - this is very familiar from the symphonies).

The opera is in three scenes and twenty-three tableaux and is termed 'A Baseball Opera'. If some of the doggerel veers frighteningly towards Maconagallese there are only a few moments where listeners will flinch (try track 15, for example).

'Weather's great for baseball' pulses with muscly energy and new morning confidence. The woodwind writing at track 5 is half Hummel cassation and half nervy rush-hour. It was always said by Sondheim that he had certain composers he turned to but as far as I know he never disclosed which. Sondheim and Gemigniani (his orchestrator-collaborator) were surely indebted to Ravel and Stravinsky but it would not surprise me at all if he knew his Schuman and this work in particular alongside the Menotti operas, Britten's Paul Bunyan, Barber's A Hand of Bridge (surely a strong pattern given its psychological strata) and Copland's Second Hurricane and The Tender Land. So far as the latter is concerned listen to Merry's Prayer and to the great yearning song by Laurie in the Copland work.

The singers for the Casey opera are spot on. These are healthy unpretentious voices - a joy to hear. How often these days are we saddled with operatic celebrities crossing over to Broadway 'slumming it' but importing portentousness where there should be lightness, vibrato where there should be steady unclouded tone, subcutaneous fat where there ought to be lean. Such conventions flatten music theatre except where they reflect parody roles - there are a few in places like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd e.g. the Italian barber Todd competes with at the fair.

Is it just me or is the sound better, more immediate, in Casey. In any event it is a truly pleasurable experience to hear the Juilliard Orchestra. Their string section is not fully the equal in luxuriance of tone to some of the swooning passages but there is little in it. The brass, woodwind and percussion flash, flicker, blast, skirl and rasp to perfection.

Casey uses a narrator who sometimes sings and sometimes orates. He is called The Watchman. His role is to move the plot along and provide commentary. It is done very effectively and a similar technique is used with even greater sophistication in Sondheim's Into the Woods. Franco Pomponi, as the Watchman, gives us a few skin-tingling moments as in track 14 Surprise.

The harrying chattering abuse (tracks 18 and 19) of the referee will ring familiarly with those who know their Mark-Anthony Turnage. Turnage's football opera featured a similar, though fouler-mouthed, reproach. The Umpire's reproof must surely have been known to Sondheim and was in mind when writing Merrily We Roll Along.

The plain-jane booklet gives the full sung texts and links direct to track read-outs. There are a handful of photos of the productions.

It is typical of Gerard Schwarz that he should lend his name and utter dedication to two such obscure works. Schwarz's discography bespeaks a man with an eye to the far horizon rather than the obvious quick sale market. Surely one of the saddest tales is the one which Delos, Seattle and Schwarz began and took far down the road towards a complete Diamond, Piston, Mennin and Schuman. It was not to be consummated though their Hanson is complete (minus the full Merry Mount opera) and what is left of the projects is no mere pedestal.

Rob Barnett


main cast:-
Watchman - Franco Pomponi
Merry - Catherine Thorpe
Buttenheiser - Carlos Conde
Charlie - Derek Dreyer
Casey - Stacey Robinson

A Question of Taste

main cast:-
Louise - Angela Norton
Mrs Hudson - Elizabeth Grohowvski
Tom - Travis Paul Groves
Mrs Schofield - Elizabeth Bishop
Mr Schofield - David Corman
Phillisto Pratt - Scott Wilde

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