I was supposed to conduct Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion this coming Friday, but by now, in the throes of the Coronavirus outbreak, it should be obvious that that’s not happening.
So instead, I’ll go deep into the catalog of cabaret songs that I’ve amassed over the past 20 years. It’s a livestreamed YouTube event, Friday, March 20, 2020 at 8 pm ET / 5 pm PT / other times in other places.
Now, likely if you’re reading this, you know me mainly as a composer or a conductor, so what’s all this about cabaret songs? Well it all started when I was in high school, hanging out with these wannabe jazzbos. They didn’t really like me that much or think I was great at the piano (I wasn’t) but I was the best they had if they wanted to practice their soloing skills.
So I learned to be a one-man rhythm section, walking the bass lines and comping in my right hand. And since I always loved singing, it was a natural next step to add my own voice to the mix. By the time I went away to college, I had a big chunk of The Fake Book and The Real Book under my fingers.
It turned out that that was a valuable asset in Hyde Park. Through various machinations, I ended up falling in with a hard-drinking, highfalutin garden party crowd mainly centered around the old Quadrangle Club (not to be confused with its current incarnation. For more, see this and this.) For the next several years I played piano in a variety of lounges, living rooms, cocktail bars, and cast parties.
I learned a lot of songs over those years. A lot of the attendees were born in the 20’s and 30’s, but even the ones who were born in the 60’s and 70’s expected me to have complete familiarity with the Noël Coward songbook. I was also doing lots of theatrical work, conducting musicals and operettas, which nursed my lifelong love of showtunes.
The big thing that’s kept me in the lounge lizard game though, has been my participation in the famous Sara Salon series in Hyde Park, which has been going on for at least 10 years now. From what I can tell, it’s the only 19th century Parisian salon in 21st century Chicago.
The idea is this: my friends Sara Stern and Ted Fishman invite all of their artistic friends over for an evening of food and performing. Everyone brings a number or an act. It can be anything from an aria to a poetry reading to a karate demonstration. One time, members of eighth blackbird played Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” on toy pianos.
I’ve tended to accompany myself at the piano, preferring to do songs with multiple characters. So for example, “Erlkönig” has become a cabaret song for me, as has “Someone in a tree” from Pacific Overtures. Whether or not I’m in drag, you can assume that I’m singing my songs in the style of an aging chanteuse, such as Marianne Faithfull, Lotte Lenya, or Bea Arthur.
So anyway, that’s the idea. Have requests ready and I’ll take them if I can. See you Friday.