You know the story by Mark Twain. You know a lot of music by Maury Yeston – composer/lyricist of Nine, Titanic, Goya, Death Takes a Holiday, many songs from Grand Hotel and the more-beautiful-than-that-other-guy’s Phantom.
Put the two together and you have the new two-disc recording on PS Classics. But it is different than other new recordings on PS Classics, for this one isn’t composed of songs. No, this is the new, full-length (as in three acts) ballet by Yeston – perhaps the first full-length ballet by a well known Broadway composer.
While it is the score for a ballet, its sound is more redolent of a Broadway show than a classical concert. Don’t think of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead, think of Richard Rodgers’ “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from On Your Toes or “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” – the famous “Dream Ballet” from Oklahoma!
From the opening strains, it is filled with what Stephen Sondheim famously referred to as “hum-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mable melodies.” The melodic lines that Yeston uses all seem very much as if they should have words attached. Indeed, they sound as if they were composed either to a set of lyrics or to be set to poetic words. As each new “song” spins out, you wonder just what the lyric would have been.
The music, however, is more than strong enough to stand on its own. Yeston always was a master melodist and the scores he wrote for shows all have lush, lovely and lively music. The same is true here, but there is the added aspect that it all is danceable, composed to support a ballet choreographer working not with a play with words or a musical with dialogue and songs but a scene by scene scenario.
That scenario – by Yeston as well – divides the story into three acts totaling thirty-seven scenes, from the famous opening where Tom talks his boyhood friends into doing most of the work painting his aunt’s fence to an oh-so-theatrical finale as Tom, Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn join the pantheon of American mythical heroes and heroines.
Yeston has never been confined to the normal occupations of Broadway composer and lyricist. He composed such pieces of (you should pardon the expression) “Serious Music” as a choral symphony and a concerto for cello. He was Dr. Yeston to his students at Yale, and he lays claim to the authorship of well-respected books on musical theory as well as Tony winning Broadway scores.
But a full-length ballet is something else again. Alastair Macaulay, who ought to know since he is the dance critic for The New York Times, wrote that “quite likely this is the first all-new, entirely American three-act ballet.” It is not, however, the first ballet written by a Broadway composer for performance outside the musical theater world. Cole Porter composed a jazz ballet-sketch titled “Within the Quota” in 1926.
There also have been ballets composed to be performed as part of Broadway shows. In addition to those mentioned above, there is Harold Arlen’s “Civil War Ballet” composed for the musical Bloomer Girl in 1944 and Ben Bagley found seven ballets from shows by Jule Styne, Harold Arlen, Hugh Martin, Harry Warren, Cole Porter, Sigmund Romberg and Johnny Mercer to record on his Painted Smiles Records. (They were High Button Shoes, Jamaica, Look Ma, I’m Dancin’, Shangri-La, Can-Can, The Girl in Pink Tights and Li’l Abner.)
Yeston’s ballet was given its world premiere two years ago by the Kansas City Ballet. That might have been the end of it, had it not been for Martin West of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Tommy Krasker of PS Classics and Grammy Award winning record producer Adam Abeshouse.
A Ballet in Three Acts
Running time 1:28 on 37 tracks on two discs
Packaged with notes, scenario and six production photos
If I Tell You
The Songs of Maury Yeston
PS Classics PS-1314
Running time 58 minutes over 17 tracks
Packaged with notes, credits and 6 color photos
They managed to get the piece recorded with West’s superb orchestra (of no fewer than seventy six players – forty of them string players!) earlier this year in George Lukas’ Skywalker Studios in California’s Marin County. West says that Skywalker is a superb venue for recording practically any kind of music because the room is so “tunable.” For this recording, it provided wide, spacious ambiance while allowing Abeshouse to capture individual details of the very active score with clarity.
Yeston attended the recording sessions which used not only the full San Francisco Ballet Orchestra but about 35 members of the San Francisco Boys Chorus for the wordless choral segments.
The result is a superbly listenable album that is atmospheric and entrancing throughout its nearly hour and a half.
However, if you really want your Yeston music accompanied by Yeston words, PS Classics can help with that as well. Shortly after West had his orchestra at Skywalker in California, PS Classics’ Tommy Krasker had Broadway’s Laura Osnes in the Avatar Studios in New York to record a collection of seventeen of Yeston’s songs backed by a combo and supporting musicians under Fred Lassen.
Most of the songs are from Yeston’s shows including his 1991 song cycle December Songs, but one – the title of the album, “If I Tell You” – was written specifically for Osnes this year. She had just opened in the gloriously lovely production of Cinderella for which she earned her third Tony nomination. She had been nominated for Bonnie and Clyde in 2012 and for Anything Goes in 2011 … three nominations in three years!
Whether you sample Yeston in vocal or orchestral packages, there is a lot to love.