Guest Blog by Matthew Mugmon: The Canadian Bess, or Porgy and Brass

April 3, 2010 at 2:52 pm 6 comments

One night in the ‘80s, in the dead of winter, my dad, my brother and I were stranded off 48th Street in Ocean City, Maryland.  Our station wagon’s tires were several inches deep in sand, and we waited three hours for AAA to tow us out.

But I was lucky that just months before that, the Canadian Brass had released an album called Strike Up the Band — and that I happened to have it in my Sony Discman at the very moment we got stuck.  With nothing else to do, I lay down in the back of the car and pressed play with the Discman on repeat.  That night, Strike up the Band became my favorite album, and in a way, it still is.  Every now and again, a new experience reminds me of this old album and its importance to my musical life.  The last time this happened was just this past Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, when I saw the Washington National Opera put on Porgy and Bess.

As great as the experience of seeing this two-act rendition of Porgy was, I couldn’t help but think about the original.  The original I’m talking about, of course, isn’t the three-act version; it’s Luther Henderson’s remarkable brass-quintet arrangement of selections from Porgy, a suite that comprises almost half of Strike Up the Band.  After song standards and the three piano preludes, the bright opening flourish of the Porgy overture begins.  Over the course of around 25 minutes, we hear “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” and “Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way,” among other classics.

Back to the preludes, for a moment: having performed two of the three of them in recitals and competitions as a teenager after listening to them on this album, I’d always had a suspicion Strike up the Band was the gold standard of all recorded Gershwin.  This is, of course, absurd; the album covers a fraction of his music, and the preludes are piano pieces.  But five instruments instead of one meant more color and (especially for the third prelude) more metropolitan bustle.  Every time I sat down to play the low-register tune from the middle portion of the second prelude, I wished the piano sounded more like a tuba.

On returning to the album after seeing Porgy last weekend, Henderson’s arrangements and the Canadian Brass recording of them took on a different kind of significance for me —they resonated as a unique reading of the opera.  Here I’ll focus on the beginning of “Bess, You is My Woman Now.”  In the opera version, a short introduction has its melody in the strings with a slithering accompaniment in the winds, interrupted by a brief cello solo to close the phrase.  Porgy (here, Lawrence Winters) then begins singing over syncopated, lively instrumental underpinning.

Musical Excerpt: “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” from the 1951 Studio Recording, conducted by Lehman Engel

In Henderson’s mellower arrangement, the short introduction (trumpets instead of strings) is lengthened, allowed to finish the phrase; the cello solo (here, Charles Dallenbach on the tuba) doesn’t so much interject as it does emerge from the texture in what seems to be a new section.  What follows is even more striking: the lone tuba continues, alone, into the song’s opening verse, with no accompaniment.  This naked sonority fills in for Porgy’s voice but lacks any hint of the orchestral scaffolding Porgy enjoys in the opera version.  Only just before the second verse, at the point when Bess (here, perhaps, the trumpet) would sing “Porgy, I’s your woman now” does the tuba vanish into a thickened texture.

Musical Excerpt: “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” from Strike up the Band

The shift from the tuba’s monophony to the trumpet’s instrumental backing does build interest as a simple contrast of range and texture.  But what I realized Saturday was the dramatic effect of this contrast in terms of the opera’s action.  The song’s introductory motive is the same tune as that to which Porgy, early in the opera, sings, “Nighttime, daytime, he got to travel that lonesome road.”  The extended solitary tuba line that follows the intro accentuates Porgy’s isolation far more than does the short cello solo in the opera version.  And the contrast with Bess’s supported melody underlines the great physical, emotional, and economic distance between the two main characters.  Henderson and the Canadian Brass seem to know that Porgy and Bess can’t be together.

This hearing doesn’t mean I somehow prefer Henderson’s arrangement, but (to take a page out of Ryan’s dissertation) it does place the brass version in dialogue with the opera in an unexpected way.  Much more could be said about these arrangements and the group’s excellent recording of them.  I hope that those of you who know the opera, and Gershwin’s other music, will give them a chance.  But I also hope you might find that my “original” brass Porgy suite is more than just a novelty item.  Rather, it could be heard as its own valid interpretation of an important work — an interpretation that’s worth three hours trapped in the sand.

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  • 1. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  April 6, 2010 at 1:21 am

    Thanks for the shout out, Matt.
    I hadn’t heard these interpretations of P&B before, but now I can’t wait to hear more.
    As I’m sure you know, the Canadian Brass cover a wide range of classical and non-classical composers. I’ve used their recording of Scott Joplin’s “Euphonic Sounds” when teaching ragtime. As you observe in your post hear, their music allows for a fresh hearing of the music which forces an unexpected dialogue with the original.

  • […] With President Obama’s high and wide pitch, baseball season is officially upon us. So I turned to Matthew Mugmon to dig into the archive for signs of the pastime’s past. Matthew is a graduate student in music at Harvard, whose dissertation looks at the relationship between American modernism and the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. And when you’re done reading his musings about baseball, check out his recent guest post on Gershwin at Amusicology. […]

  • 3. mugsy81  |  April 7, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Ryan – the whole P&B thing by the CB is great, as is the rest of their album. I’ll have to check out the Joplin. I wonder what the reputation of the CB is, and how much people think of them as “serious.” Anyway, thinking about this makes me want to check out more Ellington arrangements of other stuff.

  • 4. mugsy81  |  April 7, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    And by Ellington, I meant Henderson.

  • 5. brassgeek  |  May 19, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    I gave up on the Canadian Brass a while back (though they are unquestionably top-level players and showmen); pretty much everything they do is “dishing up” (as PAG would say) music that already existed, and established itself as not-ephemeral, in another form (classical chestnuts, pop/jazz repertory, whatever). Imagine what accord a top-flight string quartet would be accorded if that’s what they performed and recorded!

    Meanwhile, groups like the American Brass Quintet, taking almost the diametric approach (almost all original works for five brasses) enjoy a much smaller falling, sad to say.

    The Canadian Brass may need durable material like “Porgy and Bess,” but “Porgy and Bess” certainly doesn’t need the Canadian Brass.

  • 6. Mack  |  June 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    I love this website, the information is great and I have bookmarked it in my favorites. This is a well organized and informative website. Great Job!


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