The honored guest artist at the Nadia Boulanger Memorial Concert at Longy (now Longy School of Music at Bard College) on Saturday night was Charles Strouse, one of America’s most well known composers for musical theater. The evening started with a delightful conversation between Strouse and Wayman Chin, Dean of the Conservatory and Chamber Music Chair at Longy. Prompted in part by Chin, Strouse recounted his years at Eastman spent trying to learn the art of classical music composition, speaking further of his studies with Boulanger. He remembered Boulanger not only as a strict musical taskmaster, but also as a master psychologist, able immediately to sense his strengths and insecurities. She was not just a great teacher, but almost a saint, he said. She told him he had a real gift for light music — a remark that could be interpreted as insulting, but was not intended as such. In France, Poulenc and many others were considered masters of light music, of which they could be proud.
Strouse went on to prove Boulanger (as usual) precisely correct by creating his memorable scores for numerous Broadway hits such as Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, and Annie. And he did not stop there. His film scores include Bonnie & Clyde, The Night they Raided Minsky’s, and All Dogs Go to Heaven. His song Those were the Days, with his long-time collaborator Lee Adams, was the theme song for “All in the Family.” Recent works include his opera Nightingale (1982), Rags, one of his favorite musicals (but not a hit), numerous reviews, as well as classical music, such as his Concerto America, composed in 2002 to commemorate 9/11; and Spirit of New York City, which was premiered at The Boston Pops in 2004. Strouse has not slowed down; he is still composing.
Chin introduced him as one of the most self-effacing people he has met, and Strouse proved the comment to be an understatement. His recollections and answers to questions from both Chin and the audience were candid, honest, and touched the heart. Chin then left the stage to Strouse, who proceeded to serenade us with many of his favorite songs, playing from memory but reading the words from some large-type papers he spread across the piano. Many were familiar and others new (at least to me.) My favorite was a song he wrote for a review sponsored by Ed Koch, about how to speak like a true New Yorker. (Sorry, I can’t print many of the lyrics.) The audience was instantly on its feet when he finished and demanded curtain call after curtain call.
After intermission we were treated by a few of Longy’s best students to some of Strouse’s early classical chamber works. There was a sonata for horn and piano, a Woodwind Quartet, and a String Quartet. Particularly delightful were three “American” piano pieces played by Christopher Orzech. The first (and most jazzy) was composed in 1948, and the next two much more recently. After leaving Paris and before his first Broadway hit, Strouse worked as a jazz musician, and he considers himself a jazzman as well as a composer of musicals. The jazz influence showed throughout his works, along with some by Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Poulenc.
After the concert Longy president Karen Zorn bestowed upon Strouse the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society. True to form, Strouse was immensely touched, not just because of the award, but because of its association with Bernstein. Strouse gave a touching account of his acquaintance with Bernstein in his later years, and the immense sadness that Bernstein held in his heart in his last months. Strouse, author of “Put on a Happy Face” and “Tomorrow,” felt it was a tragedy that someone who had achieved so much and was so loved could feel so worthless and mistreated. A true, extraordinary human response from a gifted man.