Time After Time -Part I
by Tom Manoff
Oregon Festival of American Music's Time After Times brings musical authenticity into view —the first of two parts.
MANY ARTS OUTFITS these days put on festivals and concerts bannered with a theme, but too often that theme is nothing more than marketing. Rarely will you find a themed festival that offers more that its surface message. Worse, the way some of these festivals toss around bits of culture without context is more than dishonest: The intention isn’t authentic, and neither is the result.
I’ve been attending programs off and on at Oregon Festival of American Music in Eugene for ten years. OFAM (as it is called) dedicates its programming to American music of all types, which is of no small importance since so much “high culture music” programming remains locked in its European origins.
OFAM offers substantive structural contrast with fluffy programming elsewhere. With a credo that music and other arts are inextricably enmeshed in history, the festival has been experimenting for years on how to unveil that richness. OFAM is honest in intentions. The result: “Authenticity in programming.”
“Authenticity” is a slippery concept. One person’s authenticity might be another’s cliché. Indeed, the idea that aesthetics can ever be an objective lens is as slippery an idea one can imagine. But authenticity of several types -historical, programmatic, and artistic -is the overarching issue in this review and commentary.
Each summer OFAM offers a big-themed festival exploring the Great American Songbook- music by legendary song-writers such as Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart . Written first for Broadway musicals, these songs then entered popular culture through several other paths, most importantly for OFAM, jazz.
This year’s festival — Time After Time: Great Moments in American Songbook History — was among the best I’ve heard from OFAM. It certainly was the most thought provoking.
Broadway musicals and songs might strike some as lightweight — entertainment of the moment. On one level that’s true. Popular culture is about instantaneous response. Delight, especially, is a fleeting sensation. But its magic is always culture-bound, its mysteries long rooted in time and tradition. Moments from a song or a show that strike us as instantly enchanting may earn a longer life as energy for remembering and reflecting.
It’s interesting, also, to reflect upon what one doesn’t like, what instantly offends, even with reflection. I’m somewhat allergic to much of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose musicals have been featured recently at OFAM. Two years ago it was South Pacific, one of the few musicals by the famous duo that appeals to me. This summer OFAM staged Oklahoma, which has always struck me as hackneyed, but something more, something that seems inauthentic to me, though I couldn’t describe all the reasons.
OFAM’s exploration of music by Rodgers and Hart (Lorenz Hart was Rodgers’ first lyricist, Hammerstein his second), which began two years ago, didn’t rehabilitate Oscar for me. Hart seemed the overlooked genius, while Oscar seemed the over-praised sentimentalist. And this year’s OFAM musicals,A Connecticut Yankee (Rodgers and Hart) and Oklahoma (Rodgers and Hammerstein), brought in the jury with a final verdict. There was no better exhibit for me in the case against Hammerstein than Oklahoma. But I came to the trial quite biased. When I heard Oklahoma as a kid, I disliked the songs instantly -a long time to hold a grudge, perhaps.
Was it mere bias, or worse, snobbery? Was classical music and its aesthetic, especially its disdain for so-called light fare, so ingrained in me that I couldn’t sit back and enjoy Hammerstein for his straight-forward, all-American sentimentality? It might even make you wonder if being anti-Hammerstein is a kind of anti-Americanism?
And why do I adore Rodger’s songs composed with Hart? Here OFAM offered another perfect exhibit this year — Connecticut Yankee , one of Rodgers and Hart’s finest shows. I knew a few songs from the musical, but had never seen it. Who’s around who has? OFAM was mounting the first fully staged production of the musical in decades.
There’s always an “OFAM aftermath” for me, a time in which the broad outline of music and ideas encountered at the festival leads to additional reflection. The questions about Hart and Hammerstein had been piling up for two years. This summer I decided to answer them finally for myself. A pile of unread books that I’d ordered two years ago were still near my desk. The pile tripled in the next months, though I would read the whole batch.
I discovered that my responses to both Hammerstein and Hart were, indeed, about authenticity, or the lack of it. The reasons were bound up in the historical, familial, and cultural impact upon genius. Clearly, Oscar Hammerstein II was a genius —if not especially my favorite among those so blessed. My interest and reflections expanded beyond Rodgers and his lyricists to singing, acting, and directing styles at the festival. Authenticity would continue to be the judge; Authenticity, that which comes from the artist’s soul naturally, informed consciously or otherwise by history and culture, but untainted by pretentiousness, unless artifice was part to the artist’s plan.
This piece will appear in two parts. Part I is mostly review, but expands also into questions prompted by OFAM’s songbook programs. Part II explores of the various ideas and themes of this piece including the historical use of stereotypes, the impact of these politics on the Broadway musical, the work of Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Paul Robeson, Showboat, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma and authenticity in American music.