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Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded and curated the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. He is currently Director of the Presidents' College at the University of Hartford. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

Deconstructing Sondheim: Careful the Things You Say

Disney Enterprises
James Corden, left, and Lilla Crawford in "Into the Woods," opening December 25.
Will Hollywood louse up the musical?

Poignantly, the Stephen Sondheim Obsessives of this world (I consider myself a lifelong admirer but not quite an obsessive) are poring over every scrap leaking out from the Disney fortress concerning the upcoming movie version of “Into the Woods.” 

The film is not due in theaters till Christmas Day, but the Sondheim Obsessives have been studying each trailer, promo clip, bootleg still and stray online rumor with the intensity of white-coated lab technicians searching for an Ebola vaccine.

A couple of months ago, an offhand remark from Sondheim himself sent the SOs into a Defcon Level Five scramble. In a small piece in The New Yorker, Sondheim said he thought the song “Any Moment,” which describes a dalliance between the Prince and the Baker’s Wife, might have been cut from the movie. A few days later he hastened to correct himself: the song, and the scene, were in the picture. The SO nation exhaled.

The SOs are, of course, primarily trying to discern the answer to a single question: will Hollywood louse up this musical up the way it loused up “Sweeney Todd”?

Credit DreamWorks
A still from the movie version of "Sweeney Todd," starring Johnny Depp.

As some of you will recall, that project -- on which so many high hopes were riding -- crashed and burned because the producers, having been handed one of the greatest (and most operatic, despite the composer’s demurrals) musicals of our time, neglected to cast performers who could actually “sing.”

This time around, the prospects seem, on paper at least, more promising. For one thing, “Into the Woods” is not as demanding musically as “Sweeney.” Thus, Johnny Depp, whose singing “voice” was so cruelly and relentlessly exposed as the demon barber, is called upon in the new movie merely to play the small role of the Wolf, a character whose lone song – “Hello, Little Girl” – is not exactly “Vesti la giubba.”

Credit Disney Enterprises
Disney Enterprises
Johnny Depp as the Wolf in "Into the Woods."

Meanwhile, some of the other players – notably Anna Kendrick as Cinderella -- have shown the ability to competently find their way around a song.

Encouragingly, the great Jonathan Tunick, who furnished the sparkling orchestrations for the original stage version of “Into the Woods,” among many other Sondheim shows, has performed the same service for the movie. Broadway veteran Paul Gemignani conducts, another cause for hope.

But most of the pre-movie chatter centers on Meryl Streep, who plays the Witch, the role created by Bernadette Peters. Why not cast Peters herself? The standard, and by now deeply clichéd explanation is that Hollywood didn’t feel that Peters -- still in robust voice and almost exactly the same age as Streep -- wasn’t enough of a name to carry a big-budget, major studio musical. So the question is: will the Streep singing voice, which was modestly and inconclusively on display in “Mama Mia” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” be sufficient to satisfy not only the SOs, but also the by-now millions of regular Americans whose kids did the show in middle school, or who themselves grew up with the cast album, or who otherwise have come to know and even feel they sort of “own” this show, which I think we can safely say is Sondheim’s best-loved?

Credit Disney Enterprises
Disney Enterprises
Meryl Streep as the Witch in "Into the Woods."

I bring some personal perspective here because my youngest daughter, Jane, when she was 12, was cast as Cinderella in a children’s theater production in Hartford, and fell heavily under show’s spell. So much so, in fact, that she wrote Sondheim a closely argued, two-page, single-spaced letter, offering some of her observations about and insights into the construction of the show. A couple of weeks later, a crisp, cream-colored envelope arrived in the mail: Sondheim had personally written a charming reply that dutifully addressed some of the issues Jane had raised.

But back to Meryl: if she turns out to be musically credible (we’ll go out on a limb and predict that her acting chops will rise to the acceptable level), then this delicate, complex piece of music theater might actually survive Disnification. And SOs everywhere will have the Christmas present they’ve been most hoping for.

From the Top in Storrs

One of the abiding mysteries about the classical music profession is this: that large numbers of smart, talented young people still aspire to enter it. I say mystery because it flies in the face of so much conventional classical wisdom: that this music means nothing to contemporary kids, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to earn a living at it, that its heavily 18th and 19th century repertoire and its ritualized concert conventions are fatally off-putting to anybody under 40.

Credit christopheroriley.com
Christopher O'Riley, host of From the Top.

And yet waves of gifted young hopefuls show up at the doors of our conservatories and music departments each year. The world is literally awash in brilliant young players, including a truly astounding and seemingly endless supply from the countries of Asia and the Far East.

For 12 years, the NPR radio program From the Top has been celebrating, and giving a forum to, young student musicians from all over the country and beyond. The program is heard on 250 stations and reaches a reported 700,000 weekly listeners.

Saturday night at 8:00 pm at UConn’s Jorgensen Auditorium, a segment of “From the Top” will be taped in front of a live audience; it’s the first time the show has visited Connecticut.

The program’s longtime host, pianist Christopher O’Riley, will be on hand to introduce and chat with a typical cluster of rising young musical phenoms.

Among them will be 13-year-old pianist Chelsea Guo of Darien. Chelsea is a ninth-grader at Darien High, and also studies music at the Juilliard Pre-College Division in New York.

Saturday’s show will air the week of December 1.

From the Top is heard locally on WNPR Sundays at 10:00 pm (is this a slightly odd time slot for a show that features kids and students?) and on WFCR Sunday afternoons at 3:00 pm.

Remember the Name

Last week the Apollo Chamber Players, an enterprising Houston-based quartet, announced the results of its inaugural International Commissioning Contest.

Credit Cris Stephens / Apollo Chamber Players
Apollo Chamber Players
The Apollo Chamber Players.

The contest, which sought original compositions from composers around the world, attracted more than 250 submissions from 30 countries.

And the winner is:

Erberk Eryilmaz, a Turkish-born pianist and composer, a man known to many of us around here because he was a student at The Hartt School, graduating a couple of years ago.

This is a big deal: Erberk wins a $3,000 prize, plus a commission to compose a new work for the Apollo Players.

Erberk Eryilmaz is not an easy name to remember, but you would be wise to remember it anyway: those of us who watched him develop at Hartt know that this is a musician destined for big things. Congratulations, Erberk.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

Steve Metcalf is an administrator, critic, journalist, arts consultant and composer. He writes the weekly Metcalf on Music blog for WNPR.org, and is the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School.

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