Unembarrassed riches

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  February 21, 2008

There were war songs, wedding songs (both earnest and bitterly ironic), sentimental ballads (Gershwin’s “The Life of the Rose,” with lyrics by Buddy de Silva), and savage satires. The afternoon’s biggest hit was Torgove singing Weill’s horrifyingly timely 1928 “Die Muschel von Margate (Petroleum Song),” which he wrote for a German play based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil (same source as There Will Be Blood). It’s about how a seller of souvenir painted mussel shells on the beach at Margate yelling “Shell! Shell! Shell!” has been replaced by Shell Oil burning on the water, and how “We’ll all pay the price.”

Weill in a lighter vein turned up the week before at the Museum of Fine Arts: the annual Valentine’s Day concert by soprano Nancy Armstrong, baritone Robert Honeysucker, Daniel Stepner (electric violin), and Laura Jeppesen (electric viola da gamba). Armstrong had more than a touch of Venus in Weill’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” (from the 1943 Broadway show he wrote with Ogden Nash, One Touch of Venus), singing about the love goddess’s lack of familiarity with the human heart. Honeysucker, in equally golden voice, gave a moving rendition of “Lost in the Stars” (from the powerful operetta about South African racism, with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson).

There was also witty Rodgers & Hart that included the deliciously intricate rhyming of “Mountain Greenery” (where “Beans could get no keener re-/Ception in a beanery”) and the naughty catalogue of easy divorces in “To Keep My Love Alive” (“I crowned him with his harp, to bust the thing,/And now he plays where harps are just the thing”) and lovely Rodgers & Hammerstein (the almost operatic “This Nearly Was Mine,” the infinitely touching “If I Loved You” — I’d love to hear them do this entire scene from Carousel). And Irving Berlin (“They Say It’s Wonderful,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” the startlingly suggestive “You’d Be Surprised”). The one encore was an ever-more-endearing/never-more-endearing “My Funny Valentine.”

Stepner’s arrangements have continued to evolve in delightfully teasing ways. He and Jeppesen are so responsive to the singers, the foursome is a virtual vocal quartet. How do they manage to get better and better each year when they were perfect to begin with?

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