Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gustave Kerker (1847-1923) was born in Germany, raised in America from childhood, and became in his day a popular musical theater composer and contributor to the development of the American musical. This two-CD set offers a representative sampling of his work. First, there is a large (about an hour) selection from his “American Dance Opera” High Society (Die oberen Zehntausend), which merges the rhythmic vitality of what would become the Broadway musical with the style of German operetta, ca. 1909. It’s relentlessly charming, predictably tuneful, somewhat formulaically scored, and a little of it goes a long way. CPO presents just enough to remain consistently entertaining.
Burning to Sing, or Singing to Burn is a
20-odd-minute operatic parody that’s very cute. A prima donna and her ne’er-do-well husband have a marital spat while their hotel goes up in flames. Much is made of that age-old operatic cliché that has the characters singing about the urgency of doing something while they all stand around doing nothing. There’s “Shall I answer the door?” and “Shall we run for safety?” and the like. It’s fun, and over in a flash. Kerker’s most popular work was his musical comedy The Belle of New York (1897), here represented by an orchestral arrangement of its main tunes.
The performances here are lively and idiomatic, for the most part. All of the singers are quite good, with the single exception of soprano Elke Kottmair, whose vibrato in Singing to Burn really lives up to her name: Madame Marguerita Tremolini. She’s fine, however, in the musical theater numbers in Die oberen Zehntausend, which call for a far less “operatic” technique. Howard Griffiths leads the NDR Radiophilharmonie with an obsessive cheerfulness that suits the music to a tee, and the whole production is excellently engineered.
The booklet notes attempt to make the case for Kerker’s importance as a major precursor of, and contributor to, the Broadway Musical, but I’m not entirely convinced. For all the craft evident here, there’s a certain lack of distinction to his melodic invention that’s undeniable. Furthermore, the notes claim that his present obscurity stems largely from the rage for Viennese-style operetta that took over the European and American stages in the 1910s. That, I submit, is nonsense, and as prima facie evidence I offer the fact that the note-writer manages not a single mention of the most important composer for the American theater of the day: Victor Herbert. This is telling, for Herbert’s story is similar to Kerker’s, only his talent was vastly greater, as was his popularity and enduring importance. Still, as a memento of a bygone period, this set is worth collecting.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
KERKER Die Oberen Zehntausend. Burning to Sing or Singing to Burn. The Belle of New York (orchestral arrangements) • Howard Griffiths, cond; Elke Kottmair (sop); Gerd Wiemer (bar); Nadja Stefanoff (mez); Alfred Berg (bar); Ralf Simon (ten); Christian Grygas (bar); Gritt Gnauck (mez); NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover • CPO 777 509-2 (2 CDs: 93: 41)
We fans of operetta and light musical comedy will note with a sense of loss the passing of Richard Traubner earlier this year at the age of 66. Traubner was a fellow fan, reviewer, and author of the still definitive book on the subject, Operetta, A Theatrical History, published in 1983. But even Traubner, surely one of the world’s experts on this rather arcane topic, devoted only half a page to the obscure, German-born composer Gustave Kerker (1857-1923). Raised from the age of 10 in Louisville, Kentucky, Kerker developed many of his musical skills conducting and composing in that unlikely locale before moving on to New York with one minor hit musical already under his belt (Cadets, 1879). Once in the Big Apple, Kerker immediately found work adapting foreign operettas and light musicals for performance on Broadway, and like contemporary Victor Herbert, Kerker began interpolating his own songs into the European works. He was soon composing entire works for the stage in New York around the turn of the century and in the years prior to World War I. If not as well known as Herbert, or the next generation of New York-based Broadway composers, such as Sigmund Romberg and Jerome Kern, Kerker wrote the music for some 20 shows and also composed works for London, Berlin, and Vienna. His best-known work is The Belle of New York, not actually much of a success in its home town, but a hit in London and other European cities.
From the booklet one gets the impression that the purveyors of this recording would have liked to have given us The Belle of New York itself, but found the performing materials to be in the hands of a private collector in Wisconsin, and unavailable. Instead, we get a quite tuneful orchestral medley from that show selected and arranged by Charles Godfrey Jr. that just makes us want to hear more. The main work presented on this recording is Die Oberen Zehntausend (literally The Upper Ten Thousand, a German euphemism for high society) a so-called dance operetta, composed for Berlin in 1909. It consists of a revue-like series of musical scenes with topical comedic dialogue, songs, and plenty of dance numbers, loosely stitched together with a cover story by German librettist Julius Freund. The New York Times had this to say about it: “The novelty of the show, however, will be the introduction for the first time on the German stage of typical American chorus business. For this purpose the management has imported a number of sprightly American and English chorus girls, who are now engaged in the Herculean task of showing their more portly and less kittenish German sisters what real hustle and bustle in a musical comedy is like.”
With apologies to our more portly German friends, I will report the production caused a sensation in Berlin, but soon faded from musical memory. We get mainly the vocal highlights here on the first disc, sung by seven young German and Austrian artists and backed by the NDR Radiophilharmonie of Hannover. They perform Kerker’s sprightly, tuneful music in the style intended, with plenty of vocal enthusiasm. There are no texts, but they are not really missed; these vocal pieces make quite enjoyable listening, and, like the orchestral excerpts, tempt us to discover more of Kerker’s music. Unfortunately, the only other disc listed at ArkivMusic contains only six songs from The Belle of New York on the EMI Classics label. Also included on disc 2 of this set is a short send-up of grand opera titled Burning to Sing or Singing to Burn, performed in English by many of the same singers as the first work. It is about an operatic couple having a marital spat in their hotel room while the hotel is burning down and is quite amusing, if not sung with true operatic voices. Short bios are provided for each of the singers and conductor Howard Griffiths. In summary, Gustave Kerker may deserve his musical obscurity, I haven’t heard enough of his music to decide for myself, but although not a necessary acquisition, this CD set makes for an enjoyable 90 minutes of listening.
FANFARE: Bill White Read less
Works on This Recording
Die oberen Zehntautend, operetta by Gustave Kerker
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra Hannover
Venue: Großer Sandesaal der NDR Landesfunkhause
Length: 1 Minutes 33 Secs.
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