The acclaimed Tony- and Grammy-nominated composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa, who opens American Songbook 2017 on Wednesday, February 1, with a delightful evening that celebrates the pure love of musical theater, shares a few of his favorite musical moments and invites you to contribute your own.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra
Above all other pieces of music, this symphony has held me in its embrace during my saddest times. The clarinet solo in the third movement moves me to tears. If I were ever given an opportunity to conduct an evening of classics, I would choose this masterwork above all others. I am deeply curious about why some works by great artists are truly inspired while others are merely, um, good—by the same artist! Rachmaninoff's first and third symphonies can't match this one. "Timon of Athens," anyone? Verdi's "Alzira"?
Carl Orff, Carmina Burana, Popp, Unger, Wolansky, Noble, Frühbeck de Burgos and the New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Again, I’m fascinated how one giant burst of greatness can come from someone who never quite achieved the same heights. I saw a production of this piece at the Bravo! Vail music festival in July 2016. What a thing to be sitting across from 350-plus artists singing and playing their heads off! In Latin and German!
"The Light in the Piazza,” words and music by Adam Guettel
I first heard this title song, from this musical presented by Lincoln Center Theater, when wide awake with jet lag in Sydney, Australia. I figured, “Can’t sleep? Might as well listen.” Simply laid there, awash in feeling, grateful to be alive, and even more grateful I could e-mail Adam and, as friend and colleague and fan, tell him how much his words and music moved me. I wish I could do the same with all my artistic heroes.
"Bourbon Street Parade,” Chanson du Vieux Carré, Harry Connick and his Big Band
Composed by Paul Barbarin in 1955, this song has gone on to be a jazz standard. Listen to this arrangement. The melody is introduced by the trumpet and trombone, playing as duet partners, gently aided by the rest of the orchestra. Then, the singer sings two more statements of the song (that’s now three times we’ve heard it). Then, six more iterations (making it, with the coda, a total of nine!), each more exciting than the previous one, played by the orchestra. In this way, it mimics the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony, first movement (another one to listen to and learn from!). Fourth and fifth times: trombone solo. Sixth and seventh: trumpet solo. Eighth: the tune, simply. The ninth time: everybody! Just listen to the saxes, the trombones with bucket mutes, the variations, the countermelodies, the jaw-dropping drum solo near the end. Harry Connick Jr. is, among many of his talents, a genius arranger.
Verdi, Messa da Requiem, “Libera me,” Jussi Björling, Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Giorgio Tozzi, Fritz Reiner and the Vienna Philharmonic
Not this entire movement but the 39 measures of the a cappella section for soprano and chorus. This section is in B-flat minor, whose relative major, D-flat major, is my favorite key (don’t ask me why—maybe it’s because “Clair de lune” is in D-flat major?). Here’s what I do: turn all the lights off, turn up the volume, lay down on the floor, and make sure Leontyne Price is the soprano soloist. Recorded in 1960, this was Ms. Price in her early days, a year before her Metropolitan Opera debut. Heaven must surely sound like this.
Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa, La Bohème, “O soave fanciulla,” Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
This is the final moment of Act One of Puccini’s great opera, La Bohème. Rodolfo sings about his life, Mimi about hers. And then they fall in love. It’s that simple. Perhaps life should be that simple, too. This is the high point of the entire act (the tenor often takes the high C though Puccini didn’t write it), and the moment the music starts in the orchestra, it is the sound of love itself. I recently stumbled upon this quote, regarding the premiere of La Bohème in 1896: “The initial response of the audience at the first performance was subdued and critical responses were polarized.” Ha!
Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra
In our twenties, Jason Robert Brown and I went to see a performance of this work (sitting in the nosebleed section at Carnegie Hall) played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the great Seiji Ozawa. This Brahms masterwork was to be performed in the second act. The first half of the program that evening didn’t inspire. It happens. Intermission went like this:
Jason: Should we stay?
Andrew: Well, why not? I don’t know the Brahms.
We stayed. And I’ll always be grateful we did. The rendering of this piece was so expansive, so gorgeous, so meticulous, so emotional—it lifted me out of my seat with the greatness of both the piece and the performance. It was, and remains, one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a concert hall. Lesson learned: Don’t leave in the middle.
The Masters of My Youth: Earth, Wind & Fire; Barry Manilow; Elton John; Billy Joel; Stevie Wonder
"Got to Get You into My Life," "Could It Be Magic," "Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting," "And So It Goes," "For Once in My Life"
One of these songs is based on a piece by Chopin. One, an audacious cover of a Beatles tune. One, a classic rock song. One, an explosion of joy with a legendary harmonica solo. One, a heartbreaking ballad rivaling the greatness of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” (Which, by the way, is my all-time favorite song ever. Period.)
Peteris Vasks, Stimmen
Vasks is a living Latvian composer. I could have chosen Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but most of you probably know that one. You may not know the Vasks and I encourage you to listen to it—the string writing is astonishing. Enviable. Deeply moving, tonal, magic. Choreographer Bill T. Jones used the work for a dance piece I saw some years ago, and that’s how I learned of it. I have, recently, composed several large-scale works with large orchestral forces. Our Broadway orchestra sizes are limited, so when I get to work with actual string orchestras, my head and heart explode.
We can't link to Stimmen here but the Cello Concerto is something to behold. Enjoy.
What should I listen to next?
I love when friends or students send me lists of new things they are listening to. Here are some new things (or revisits to old favorites): Electronic Dance Music (EDM) by Stromae (I love “Papaoutai”); Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu”; Leonard Bernstein’s setting of a Walt Whitman poem, “To What You Said,” from his Songfest song cycle; James Horner’s Pas de Deux; David Archuleta and Nathan Pacheco singing “The Prayer”; Benjamin Scheuer’s Songs from THE LION.
Find me on Twitter @lippaofficial and tell me what YOU like!
Listen to the full playlist.
Andrew Lippa's expansive catalog includes The Wild Party, The Addams Family, Big Fish, John & Jen, and the widely praised theatrical oratorio I Am Harvey Milk.