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Jessye Norman dishes on hip-hop's origins and the Duke

July 26, 2011 |  7:09 pm

Jessye
For her concert on Saturday launching the new Pasadena-based orchestra Muse/ique, soprano Jessye Norman says she plans to keep talking to a minimum and concentrate on singing –- so if you’re going, here is her quick history lesson on American music, which will be her concentration in performing the works of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington:

“The basis of what we call popular music in this country is the spiritual, it all comes from the same germ…. Discussing the influence of African American culture on the world with hip-hop kids, [I told them] that already in the late 1800s, particularly in the Southern states, ministers were already preaching in rhythm and giving this sort of rhythm to the Bible stories, because it was more attractive to the people of the church.  Hip-hop has grown out of that,” Norman says.

And a little dish about Duke:  “I love singing his music.  I wish I had known him personally.  I only saw him from afar -– I remember I was in university at the time … and he was walking across the road and I said, ‘Has there ever been a more elegant man in the world?’ Look at him! Dressed in a light-colored suit –- it was summer, I don’t know if it was beige or ivory … I thought, my gosh, what must it be like to be Duke Ellington?”

Read a candid interview with Jessye Norman.

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Marvin Hamlisch named conductor of the Pasadena Pops

Rachael Worby resigns after 11 seasons conducting Pasadena Pops

-- Diane Haithman

Photo: Soprano Jessye Norman, at the Langham Huntington Hotel. Credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times 

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Music review: Marvin Hamlisch conducts the Pasadena Pops near the Rose Bowl

Hamlisch
When Rachael Worby suddenly resigned as Pasadena Pops conductor last year, it took only about a week for the orchestra to announce a successor with a built-in supply of marketing slogans. When you’re Marvin Hamlisch –- composer of a clutch of household tunes –- they just about write themselves. The cover of the Pops program magazine proclaims “Nobody Does It Better” (his hit movie song for Carly Simon), and a press release calls Hamlisch “Pasadena’s Singular Sensation” (using a lyric from his hit Broadway musical “A Chorus Line”).

These days, with his hitmaking years far behind him, Hamlisch has carved out a personal empire in the pops concerts field, acquiring a string of principal pops conductor positions with the symphonies of Dallas, Seattle, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and San Diego. Pasadena would seem to be a logical addition; Hamlisch is an old pro in Hollywood, and many of the busy studio musicians in the Pasadena Symphony and Pops probably have worked with him before.     

Following the rhythm of the marketing slogan, Hamlisch’s debut program Saturday night was entitled “Marvin Does Marvin,” but contrary to the implication, it wasn’t a run-through of Marvin’s greatest hits.  Rather, Hamlisch used the conventions of pops concerts as a means of introducing himself, displaying his influences and inspirations as much as his own work. So there was a Richard Rodgers medley, a Jerome Kern medley, and a “Songs I Wished I’d Written” medley to lend context to the inevitable medleys from “The Sting” and “A Chorus Line.”  

J. Mark McVey –- on loan from “Les Misérables” at the Ahmanson –- provided a jolt of old-fashioned showbiz, singing the Rodgers medley, several Hamlisch tunes, “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables,” and a rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Soliloquy” from “Carousel” that toned down the macho swagger it usually gets.

The Hamlisch/Pasadena alliance is going to need some time to simmer; the playing was at first routine, stiff in rhythm, not always in sync with Hamlisch’s piano, though improving considerably for the music from “A Chorus Line.” Yet Hamlisch ought to wear well as an emcee; he banters with the customers, doesn’t oversell the music and has an attaché case full of anecdotes and crowd-pleasing stunts like his Rent-A-Composer routine where he makes up songs from listener-suggested titles (one person came loaded for bear with “I Have Jesus in My Heart, and My Hand in Your Back Pocket”!).

Then there are the problems of the locale -– a slightly sloping lawn near the Rose Bowl where the stage shell was placed at the top of the slope, which resulted in impaired sight lines from the white-linen-clothed tables.  The twin video screens were too bright, further distracting views of the stage, and the amplification sounded canned. But for next summer's season, they will be moving to the flatter, literally greener pastures of the Los Angeles County Arboretum. 

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