Thursday, October 18, 2007

Another View of the Norman Leyden Birthday Concert

a living legend reaches 90
October 17, 2007
Posted by Charles Noble

Wow. I am stunned - and I’m ashamed that I’m stunned. I went to the Norman Leyden 90th birthday concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this evening (which was presented by the Oregon Symphony). I don’t know what I was expecting, but I got a master class in what it is to be a consummate professional who still shows joy in music making after a sesquicentennial in the business.

The high points? Hearing maestro Leyden sing for the first time in my 12 years with the orchestra - and he can! He’s no Sinatra, but he hit the notes, the phrasing, and did so with elán. His clarinet playing is a bit grainier in texture than a few years ago, but he still effortlessly turns a phrase like those giants he played and arranged for in the 40’s and 50’s.

The big band he assembled was also in great form, very tight and some great solo turns, especially from trumpeter Mark Gaulke and saxophonist Dick Saunders.

Vocalist Reneé Cleland was superb, having shown much growth from her days as a member of the Leyden Singers, and a sparkling presence on stage. Rod Lucich was steady and reliable, but his voice didn’t sparkle, and he was slightly under pitch for many of the songs.

Norman always found time to promote local young artists who were worthy of notice and who shared his love for the music of the big band era. Reed player Hailey Niswanger is a sax and clarinet player to watch - she has got the goods: great sound, pure intonation, and a sure hand around a turn of phrase. And she’s only a senior at West Linn High School. Back for her second performance with Leyden was Aubrey Cleland, daughter of Reneé, who made her pops debut at the age of 10. Now 14 she’s on her way to being a seasoned performer. She has a young voice, but time will take care of that, and she has the presence and quality (and beauty) of her mother, so look out world!

Dance West of Beaverton provided several large-scale dance set pieces - the up tempo numbers were the most effective, but the choreography proved a bit repetetive and didn’t always match up to the mood of the music.

In retrospect, I feel I owe Norman an apology. I didn’t take him seriously enough - I respected him and liked him very much as a person, but I didn’t or couldn’t see what was before me: a master and legend.

I stand corrected.

this next post is courtesy of the blog "Pencilmarks" by Tony Maxymillian, Portland, Oregon

An evening with Norman Leyden

The Oregon symphony hasn't been noted of late for groundbreaking or original performances. Their uninspiring programs have lost the luster of years past with stiff performances seeming more like high school music class. Despite the plummet toward irrelevance, however, they can still, on occasion, offer an evening of fine entertainment. Norman Leyden's performance, on occasion of his 90th birthday, at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall last night was the best offering the Oregon Symphony has had since, well, Norman's retirement performance several years ago, and the sold out crowd seemed to agree, clapping wildly throughout and even spontaneously bursting into a verse of "Happy Birthday" late in the show.

Hearing Norman's big band is always a treat. I've heard him conduct the Oregon Symphony Pops, and perform with Pink Martini, but he always seems at his best in front of a big band. It's also one of the few occasions on which you can hear the classics of the big band era performed as they were intended. Leyden's history as an arranger, and his 300 plus arrangements make him an authority on the big band sound, and he is always true to the style of a time when stockings had seems, men wore hats, and movie stars smoked on screen. Most interesting is how the old arrangements lack the clutter heard in even the best of their modern counterparts. It's not to say the traditional is better, just different...and disappearing.

Norman Leyden is 90 years old. Honestly, and with the deepest respect, we may not have a chance to hear him that many more times. Where he once occupied a regular place in the Symphony's season, his appearances are now rare and special. This obviously wasn't lost on the audience, many of whom appeared to be Norman's contemporaries. Outside prior to the show, while waiting for my party to arrive, I was struck by how intent many were to be there. Many in attendance had obvious difficulty getting around, requiring walkers and assistants, and moving with great effort, but they weren't going to be left out. In spite of the struggle, once inside, the music brought out inspiring youth in everyone. At the end of the show, balloons were dropped from the ceiling as a birthday cake was brought onstage, and before long, the crowd was throwing the balloons around like a beach ball at a Van Halen concert. The energy was both unexpected and exhilarating, and Leyden and the band responded in kind.

The band stand was decorated white, and the band all wore white for a very clean presentation. From the opening note of Tommy Dorsey's Hawaiian War Chant they hit the ground running to a welcoming standing ovation. The expected classics were all included. Pennsylvania 6-5000 and American Patrol, 2 Glenn Miller classics, featured dancing by Dance West from Beaverton. Leyden himself lifted the microphone to sing Chattanooga Choo Choo and the highlight of the evening came with a jumping performance of In the Mood featuring scorching solos by Dick Saunders and Paul Mazzio. The band tore through the song with enthusiasm to a point where they sounded on the verge of chaos, but never out of control, as Saunders and Mazzio traded licks on sax and trumpet.

Some intimate moments of the night came in the voice of Renee Cleland and songs such as September in the Rain, and Music Maestro, Please. Cleland's daughter Aubrey took the stage for what I thought was a less well known song, 6 Lessons from Madame LaZonga, but the cheers and snickers in the audience told me otherwise. Young Cleland performed with a maturity beyond her 14 years, returning later to perform an uplifting version of A-Tisket A Tasket. Other vocals were provided by Leyden regular Rod Lucich, and Hailey Niswanger joined the band on saxophone for several numbers.

By the time it was over the audience was well satisfied and the band well played. For all the musical excitement, though, Leyden himself seemed to almost revel in the evening, especially when bantering with the audience. Hopefully, the Oregon Symphony will take notice. This was the kind of evening Portland audiences expect, whether comprised of casual popular music such as performed by the Leyden band, or a thoughtful interpretation of an interesting classical program. It also doesn't go unnoticed that this was the first time in a long while I saw the Schnitz sold out for a Symphony sponsored event. In case your listening, Symphony, give us more quality like we saw last night, and bring Norman Leyden back for at least one performance each season. Maybe then you won't seem so irrelevant.

Posted by tony on October 18, 2007 12:19 PM


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