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Tin Pan Alley’s Top-notch Tour of American Song


Soprano Jennifer Aylmer, baritone Randall Scarlata, and pianist Laura Ward in a program “Tin Pan Alley at the Gardner” delighted, fascinated, informed, and touched our hearts. Perhaps most surprising of all, the three transported many of us back to another time, uniquely American, to alternating states of the sublime to the ridiculous, this in a few blinks of the eye. All were absolutely top-notch. Sunday, October 3 was the threesome’s third journey to the museum. Take note: they are coming back next Sunday, same place and time—1:30. If you are looking for enlightenment—that’s not too strong a word— and an indescribably uplifting time, you will not want to miss next week’s follow-up concert.

Fast-moving sets of five songs each were performed: “The Birth of Tin Pan Alley”; “Modern Life,” which focused on the telephone in Hello My Baby (1899), another travel invention in Come Josephine in My Flying Machine (1910) and yet another in The Enchanted Train (1923); and the final set, “Home Sweet Home. I knew about ten  of the twenty songs on the program, so, for me, their song selection could not have been better, presenting both the familiar and unfamiliar.

Singers and pianist come with mounds upon mounds of experience. The threesome was as expert as entertaining, singing and talking through the twenty songs and a little bit of their history. For their first set, “The World of Song,” they began with I Feel a Song Coming On (1935), music by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Both Aylmer and Scarlata used this one as a warm-up, and then carried on with some facts about Tin Pan Alley, the kind of which you may have forgotten but always want to hear again,  when and where it all started and how the place got to be called by that name. Aylmer and Scarlata also pointed out that Isabella Stewart Gardner, herself, having taken a liking to American popular song, enjoyed the early  songs, ones she might well have heard in her very own Boston palace.

When composer James L. Molloy died, it was a fact that a copy of Love’s Old Sweet Song (1884) could be found in every household in Great Britain. If you cannot remember this song by its title, you will certainly recognize the unforgettable melody the instant it begins. Randall Scarlata showed his love for this gem with the clearest of diction and the finest of phrasing. Another song from this set written by Noel Coward, his Mrs. Worthington (1933), drew chuckles from around the room. All three performers put just the right bounce in the rhythm. Sometimes their word delivery verged on speech: “Don’t put your daughter on the stage” they chanted. I was assured that Mrs. Aylmer, soprano Jennifer’s mother who was in the audience, was no stage mother like Mrs. Worthington.

Counterpointed melodies in Play a Simple Melody (1914), another of Irving Berlin’s hits, and a subtle, most beautiful modulation in Jerome Kern’s The Land Where the Good Songs Go (1917), caused one to consider an artfulness these American popular composers brought to their songs. Singers Aylmer and Scarlata reminded us of Stephen Foster’s leaving the minstrel song to explore expression in the sphere of art song. His parlor songs best known to most of us were heard in enchanted renderings of Beautiful Dreamer (1862) and Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (1854) first sung by baritone, Scarlata and soprano Aylmer, respectively, then in duet, combining the two melodies. It might have been the most moving moment of the afternoon. Stephen Foster called his wife Jeanie though her real name was Jane. He dedicated his song to her.

You could feel and savor this love expressed in Foster’s songs through the singing of Jennifer Aylmer and Randall Scarlata and in the piano accompaniment from Laura Ward. The three lifted all of the American treasures on the entertaining yet instructive program to heights they belonged.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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