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JESSYE NORMAN: lead artist in West Coast Premiere of "Ask Your Mama"





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ASK YOUR MAMA

JESSYE NORMAN DISCOGRAPHY

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Opera meets Jazz at the HOLLYWOOD BOWL
MUSIC BY LAURA KARPMAN INSPIRED BY LANGSTON HUGHES' EPIC POEM "ASK YOUR MAMA: 12 MOODS FOR JAZZ"
with JESSYE NORMAN, THE ROOTS, NNENNA FREELON, GEORGE MANAHAN AND THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL ORCHESTRA
"AND THEY ASKED ME RIGHT AT CHRISTMAS
IF MY BLACKNESS, WOULD IT RUB OFF?
I SAID. ASK YOUR MAMA."

LANGSTON HUGHES' erstwhile little known work could very well turn out to be his best known, following specially staged performances of his epic poem "Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz." It stood out at the sold-out world premiere of its first major musical setting (by Laura Karpman, Emmy-award winning composer for film, TV, and video-games) as the centerpiece of HONOR! - the festival curated by celebrated soprano Jessye Norman in celebration of the African-American cultural legacy held March 4-23, 2009 at New York's Carnegie Hall, and which comes to the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on August 30, 2009.

The West Coast premiere features the same vocal artists, led by the legendary Ms. Norman, this time performing with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (in place of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in the Carnegie Hall production).   And it promises to be every bit as exciting in the Bowl's vastly different outdoor casual setting that seats a much bigger audience (17,000 if filled to capacity!).

Above, the 2-CD set companion to the Carnegie Hall Honor! Festival. CD1 is a sampler of Jessye Norman's vast Lieder, spiritual and popular song repertoire; CD2 features works by such icons and trailblazers of African American music as Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk...  BUY THE CD set.

"Ask Your Mama" is more than an epic poem.  Its subtitle is a direct reference to both its structure--a 12-part poem cycle--and the poet's apparent passion for jazz.  It is a most eloquent example of the genre known as JAZZ POETRY that was in large part his creation. And perhaps the most explicit, given not only its subtitle but, more remarkably, the right-hand margin of every page on which he wrote notations for a musical score (see excerpt at left).

Hughes began creating the poem late in his career while participating in the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival and indeed planned a performance of the work in collaboration with jazz great Charles Mingus.  Unfortunately, he died before he could bring his plans to fruition. 

The poem is an uncommonly original paean to the African American icons of Hughes' generation: musical (e.g., from mood #1 entitled "Cultural Exchange," lines 27 and 28: LEONTYNE SAMMY HARRY PORTIER LOVELY LENA MARIAN LOUIS PEARLIE MAE), intellectual (e.g., RALPH ELLISON, GEORGE SCHUYLER, RICHARD WRIGHT), and political (e.g., FREDERICK DOUGLASS, MARTIN LUTHER KING). Pulsating with a natural rhythm that could verily have inspired the rap music so ubiquitous today - one wonders, could HUGHES be enshrined as the "father of rap?", it skillfully paints with folksy wit, humor and pathos a colorful canvas of African American life during the years cradled between the heady exhilaration of the Harlem Renaissance and the bloody turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement. Well-known non-African American personalities of the time who wielded power for good or ill (e.g., CASTRO, NASSER, NIXON) are not ignored, along with lesser figures whose now largely unfamiliar names the curious could mine for hidden meanings.

If you are a music lover (not only of jazz) AND new to Langston Hughes, "Ask Your Mama" is perhaps your best introduction to one of the 20th-century's most creative and prolific writers. (Known as the O. Henry of Harlem, he authored poetry, prose, drama and political tracts.) You will instantly find him a kindred soul, beginning with the interesting way he prefaced the poem - with the musical notes to a traditional melody which he chose, in Wagnerian fashion, as the poem's leitmotif "in and around which a spontaneous jazz improvisation" could be played between verses. The poem itself cuts across musical genres, the subtitle "12 moods for jazz" notwithstanding, With multiple references in the first verse to German Lieder, LEONTYNE (PRICE) and MARIAN (ANDERSON)--who both blazed trails in opera for Jessye Norman and her league--it then marches on to the suggested beat of gospel and folk, patriotic song, pop and swing, bebop, blues and the many variations of jazz, depicting with pointillist rhythm the rigors of African American life and--intersecting culture with politics--his prescient dreams of the future for himself and his people (e.g., "Dreaming that the Negroes / Of the south have taken over - / Voted all the Dixiecrats right out of power - / Comes the colored hour:" and "Me / In the White House / And ain't never had a black house"). 

At the same time, the poem itself is a tacit measure of the man that was LANGSTON HUGHES, one who took great pride in his race but was no prisoner of it, who embraced as dearly that which he found to be true and good and beautiful outside and beyond his ethnic heritage, as exemplified in the words he wrote about himself: "My chief literary influences have been Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. My favorite public figures include Jimmy Durante, Marlene Dietrich, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marian Anderson and Henry Armstrong." and "I like 'Tristan,' goat's milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and bullfights; I dislike 'Aida,' parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges."

It was seemingly by accident that Laura Karpman while browsing in a bookstore some five years ago discovered "Ask Your Mama."  By her own account she is a big LANGSTON HUGHES fan, but like many others did not know the poem existed. For some reason that's hard to understand today, it had been largely ignored by reviewers and opinion makers. But perhaps it was not entirely fortuitous.   A couple of years later, Karpman's path crossed Jessye Norman's and the composer grounded in both Beethoven and jazz began a collaboration with the bigger-than-life opera singer--revered for her powerhouse voice, magnificent stage persona, and the wide range of her repertoire-- who would be curating Honor!, a Carnegie Hall-based festival celebrating the African American cultural legacy. There couldn't have been a better artistic partnership.  The result was a one-of-a-kind, multi-dimensional score that called for a panoply of diverse images, sounds and voices, a high-tech, multimedia show that juxtaposed classical orchestra with jazz band, scat with Lieder, song with spoken word, and projected images with archival video- a fitting homage to one of the most multi-faceted figures in African American culture.

From all reports, a unique adventure in music. Can't wait for the show to get to the Hollywood Bowl!
GCajipe / FanFaire


ASK YOUR MAMA: Laura Karpman, composer; Hollywood Bowl Orchestra-George Manahan, conductor; Jessye Norman, soprano; Nnenna Freelon, vocalist; The Roots

SUNDAY, AUGUST 30, 2009, at 7:30 PM HOLLYWOOD BOWL, 2301 N. Highland Ave. in Hollywood

Tickets:
($28 - $116) on sale at HollywoodBowl.com, at the Hollywood Bowl Box Office (Tuesday–Saturday, 12 p.m.–6 p.m.), at all Ticketmaster outlets OR call Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000. Groups of 10 or more may be eligible for a 20% discount, subject to availability; call 323.850.2050 for further details.

For general information or to request a brochure, call 323.850.2000.


Learn more about "Ask your Mama:"

1. from the official website

2. from the National Public Radio (NPR) report on "Ask Your Mama" which aired shortly before the work's world premiere at Carnegie Hall featuring both Laura Karpman and Jessye Norman. LISTEN.

3. from the promotional video. WATCH.


Learn more about HONOR! and JESSYE NORMAN from her engaging interview with CHARLIE ROSE
WATCH
.

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