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Fred Small/The Flirtations: Everything Possible

A few years after I came out in my late twenties when I realized that I was gay, still struggling to understand and find my place in a challenging society, the music of The Flirtations, celebrating gay culture with wit and strength, offered me solace and support, a beacon of hope, and a call to arms in the battles against AIDS and homophobia.

The Flirts, as they were affectionately known, billed themselves as (and were indeed) “the world’s most famous, openly-gay, all-male, politically active, multicultural, a cappella singing doo-wop group.” Active from 1988 through 1997, they started on the streets of Greenwich Village, gaining prominence and fans as they appeared on television and radio, at a number of prominent national venues including the Kennedy Center, and in the movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks. Covering standards and introducing original numbers, their music embraced a wide range of genres: doo-wop, folk pop, antiapartheid anthems, barbershop quartet, Latin American political songs, humor, world beat, and more. I reveled in all of it.

Dating one of them for a while, I listened with fascination at rehearsal as they passionately debated repertoire choices and arrangements, fiercely committed to their music and to using it to make the world a better place for all. Fred Small’s “Everything Possible” became one of their anthems and most popular offerings … certainly one of mine. Fred wrote about it in an online posting, quoted here:

“Thanks for all the kind words and thoughtful critiques of my song, ‘Everything Possible’ which I wrote in 1983 at the request of a lesbian mother trying to raise her 9-year-old son amidst the  pressures of (toxic) masculinity. The song took off in the late 1980s when the Flirtations picked it up, leading to its performance by LGBTQ choruses around the world… As a straight cis man, I’m deeply honored and humbled by the song’s embrace by LGBTQ singers and audiences.

“I’ve thought about revising the lyrics to eliminate the gender binary. It’s not an easy fix. For now, my hope is that ‘You can dream all the day never reaching the end of everything possible for you’ affirms an infinite range of sexual/affectional orientation and gender presentation/identity.”

The Flirts changed in membership over the years. The clip below is from their first CD, released in 1990 when they were Jon Arterton, Michael Callen, Aurelio Font, TJ Myers, and Cliff Townsend. In concert, Michael often introduced it this way: “Well, we’re coming near the end of the show, so we’re gonna sing a lullaby now. Try to imagine how different you might be, and how different the world might be, if more parents would sing lullabies like this to their children.”

Indeed. I hope that you enjoy it as much and find it as meaningful as I still do. Listen for their sharing of melodic lines among several voices, one of their signatures.

We have cleared off the table, the leftovers saved, washed the dishes and put them away.
I have told you a story and tucked you in tight at the end of your knockabout day.
As the moon sets its sail to carry you to sleep over the Midnight Sea,
Well, I will sing you a song no one sang to me—may it keep you good company.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

Some girls grow up strong and bold; some boys are quiet and kind.
Some race on ahead, some follow behind; some go in their own way and time.
Some women love women and some men love men.
Some raise children and some never do.
You can dream all the day never reaching the end of everything possible for you.

Don’t be rattled by names, by taunts or games, but seek out spirits true.
If you give your friends the best part of yourself, they will give the same back to you.

You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.
Oh, the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

Richard Strauss: Beim Schlafengehen

I’m sitting at a friend’s memorial service, moved to tears, not only by the testimonials to his all-too-short life, but also by a recording that he had asked to be played: a short, lush orchestral intro, then a soprano … luminously singing of her longing for sleep and the peace it offers. “Beim Schlafengehen” [“Going to Sleep”], one of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder [“Four Last Songs”], moves me as deeply every time I hear it as it did decades ago that first time.

Composed in 1948 by the 84-year-old Strauss a year before he died, the Four Last Songs was, with the exception of one song [“Malven”] finished later that year, Strauss’s last complete work … his farewell to life. Set as lieder with orchestral accompaniment to three poems by Hermann Hesse and one by Joseph von Eichendorff, the work is imbued with a feeling of calm acceptance and completeness.

It is the one piece of music of which I own the most recordings, each different interpretation offering its own insight and rewards. I turn most often to the 1953 recording by Lisa della Casa with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Karl Böhm. Böhm knew Strauss well and conducted the first performances of several of Strauss’s works. He chose to record the songs in the order that Strauss had preferred, rather than in the order in which they were arranged into a song cycle and posthumously published. Most importantly for me, Böhm avoids exaggerated solemnity and allows the music to flow and breathe with a sense of serene peace, supporting della Casa’s divine simplicity. Together they reflect and embody Strauss’s deeply felt appreciation of the world just before he left it.

Of the four songs in that recording, I return most frequently to “Beim Schlafengehen” for the ethereal, touching beauty of della Casa’s interpretation as she begins the song’s final verse [“Und die Seele unbewacht…]. Echoing the immediately preceding haunting violin solo, her voice soars radiantly upward on the soul’s wish to live deeply and thousandfold in night’s magic sphere.

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

Yes, I’m well aware that no sound can be heard in the vacuum of space. Still, I am rather taken by the theory of Pythagoras known as the Harmony of the Spheres, in which he postulated that the sun, moon, and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution. If I could indeed hear the music of those spheres as they move through the heavens, for me it would be the celestial hum at the end of the first section of the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), Brazil’s preeminent composer of the 20th century. Although the Moon is the major actor at the heart of the Portuguese lyrics, it’s the hum at the end that transports me.

Performed by an ensemble of eight cellos and soprano, there are many interesting recordings to explore, starting with the first: recorded in 1945 (first section only), shortly after that section was written, with the composer as conductor accompanying Bidu Sayão. I’m partial to versions sung by, seemingly surprisingly (but perhaps not), Joan Baez (conducted by Maurice Abravanel) and Marni Nixon (conducted by Felix Slatkin). But the first version I heard many years ago remains the one I hear when I gaze heavenward: also with Villa-Lobos conducting, it features the radiant voice of Victoria de los Angeles. Critics may quibble about the conducting, but all agree that her singing is sublime. This recording, found below, includes both sections: [1] Ária (Cantilena) and [2] Dança (Martelo).

As for that heavenly hum, listen for it starting at about 4:55, continuing through 6:11. Pay special attention (and perhaps boost your volume just a tad) as it floats even higher into the heavens at 6:03.

Alexander Borodin/Robert Wright and George Forrest: Night of My Nights

My love of Broadway musicals, also thanks to a family outing, began at a 1965 revival of Kismet at Lincoln Center. This winner of several 1954 Tony® Awards, including Outstanding Musical, enchanted me with its exotic recreation of old Baghdad (1071 CE) enlivened by the glorious music of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) adapted by Robert Wright and George Forrest at the suggestion of Vernon Duke. In later years, memories of that enchanting evening inspired me to search out the Borodin works on which its music was based, a listing of which you can find on Wikipedia should you find yourself similarly inspired.

The colorful, humorous, romantic musical adaptations matched well with the story of a rascal of a poet, Hajj, who marries his beautiful daughter off to the young caliph and outwits the wicked Wazir at every turn. Alfred Drake, star of many Broadway musicals including the original Oklahoma, won a Tony Award as Distinguished Musical Actor for making the role of Hajj his own. Drake also starred in the 1965 revival but was unfortunately out ill the night we were there, greatly disappointing me even as a twelve-year old, as I missed hearing this legend sing in person.

Many of its songs became hits of radio, LP, and sheet music, including “Stranger in Paradise,” “And This Is My Beloved,” and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads.” While in college, whenever I was feeling a bit low, I would put on my LP of the original Broadway cast recording, eventually wearing out the vinyl (but never the patience of my roommates, who also fell in love with the music). The pulse of life flowing through the music never failed to cheer me. This was especially true of “Night of My Nights,” sung by the young Caliph … smitten by and in love with Marsinah, Hajj’s daughter. In it the Caliph instructs his musicians to “Fashion songs of delight and delicious desire / For the night of my nights,” which they most delightfully do. A bit of delicious Broadway trivia: which two young actors from Kismet shared the stage as leads in a blockbuster musical that opened the year I saw this revival? Richard Kiley, our original Caliph in 1954, conquered windmills and our hearts as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha in 1965, singing of his love for Dulcinea (Aldonza), played by Joan Diener, the seductive Lalume, wife-of-wives of the Wazir in the original Kismet with Kiley.

It is Kiley’s exuberant, joy-filled original cast album rendition of “Night of My Nights” (based on Borodin’s Serenade from his Petite Suite) that I share with you today in the hopes that it buoys your spirits as much as it always does mine. Be patient and stick with its orchestral introduction before Kiley comes in … worthy of savoring in its own right, as is the lovely high pianissimo ending floated by Kiley.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Der Hölle Rache

Blame it all on my mom, my love of opera and vocal music. And on Rita Streich. For a birthday celebration in my youth Mom persuaded Dad to drive our family into NYC from Long Island to a performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute] by the Salzburg Marionette Theater. To my youthful eyes and ears, those two-foot high marionettes came to life, transporting me to a magic world of glorious music and remarkable singing as they acted to the 1953 DG recording led by Ferenc Fricsay with a cast that included a youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Papageno.

It was, however, the coloratura glories of Rita Stretch as the Queen of the Night that grabbed me by the throat and elicited a “Wow! Music can sound like that?!?” In her famous second act aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (often referred to as “The Queen of the Night’s Aria,” although she has another beautiful aria in act one), the Queen puts a knife into the hand of her daughter, Pamina, threatening to deny and curse her if Pamina doesn’t kill Sarastro, the Queen’s rival.

The aria begins: “The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart, Death and despair flame about me …” And flame it does, boiling over with piercing emotion and an astonishingly stratospheric F6 above top C, that both scared me and thrilled me at that first performance. An interesting footnote: a recording of the aria by Edda Moser, with the Bavarian State Opera led by Wolfgang Sawallisch, is included in a collection of music from Earth on the Voyager 1 satellite … stratospheric singing now way beyond our stratosphere.

Although I’ve enjoyed many Queens of the Night in live performance and recordings in the 50+ years since that first one, my heart still belongs to Rita Streich, the German-Russian coloratura soprano renowned throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, who introduced me to the glories of the human voice. Thank you, Rita. Thank you, Mom.

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