JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Music of Leroy Anderson (Director/Producer: Peter Rosen) - February 5, 2007
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The Music of Leroy Anderson

Once Upon a Sleigh Ride

3 3
198 min.

Come for the music; stay for the story

Pops fans everywhere must treat themselves by adding Peter Rosen’s marvellous DVD on the life and time signatures of Leroy Anderson to their collections. It’s fascinating to hear his musical colleagues split down the middle as to whether the fastidious, gem-in-three minutes composer’s first name is “Le Roy” or “Lee Roy.” More instructive is the ability to compare conducting styles and skills of Arthur Fiedler, John Williams, Seiji Ozawa, Keith Lockhart and Frederick Fennell with Anderson’s. Not surprisingly, the composer’s lean, clear style and insider’s knowledge of the scores lift his performances above the more charismatic maestros.

Clips from the Boston Pops’ 1972 Tribute (replete with blue jackets for Blue Tango) are almost together and typically phraseless. Lockhart personifies fluff while Ozawa shows his colleagues that a more relaxed tempo yields a smoother result. The onstage Fiedler/Anderson banter is equally revealing in its tone. The metamorphosis of the crowd favourite Fiddle Faddle to Fiedler Faddler is notable for football-discovered tunesmith’s lack of enthusiasm.

For The Typewriter, Rosen has cobbled together an editing tour de force. Starting from Jerry Lewis’ incomparable rendition (from Who’s Minding the Store) through Fennell’s charming vocalization of the principal percussion line, the complete version darts seamlessly back and forth to the comedian’s antics the Symphony Hall performance and some fabulous black-and-white shots of real and frazzled typists on the job. Anderson conducts with characteristic poise while a sweating Fiedler tries hard not to miss a carriage return on the gourd.

Amidst all of the fine music are observations by family and colleagues on the celebrated entertainer’s life. Great fun is Elaine Stritch’s recollection of Anderson as a one-time Broadway musical songsmith (Goldilocks, memorable for her rendition of “I Never Know When”). Once again, the personalities and egos which surrounded him left the son of Swedish immigrants overwhelmed and unable to manoeuvre past their control and into his own limelight. Tellingly, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story was playing just down the street.

On the serious side, there’s a sample from the Piano Concerto in C Major (recorded in Massey Hall, Skitch Henderson, conductor; Catherine Wilson, piano). The “Finale” has a pleasing twang of country, but, despite a dedicated and sincere approach by all concerned, is unable to say something truly unique or manage to rivet our attention.

Sympathetically narrated by Dick Cavett, the musical portrait is both timely (2008 marks the centennial of Anderson’s birth) and honest: concert music owes an eternal debt of gratitude to the man who so often accomplished the remarkable feat of taking seemingly “simple” elements and weaving them into symphonic art.

The DVD has a generous array of bonus material (The Goldilocks Interviews; At Home; American Musical Theatre). While much information can be gleaned and further performances heard, they prove conclusively that actors and composers need a script or a score, respectively, to best communicate their thoughts and ideas. JWR

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