- By John Stark
This holiday season I have the perfect gift for my friends — those who love show tunes and those who don’t. It’s pianist Jenny Lin’s new CD, Get Happy, in which she performs 18 tunes that are mostly from Broadway musicals, all in her own classically trained style.
Classical musicians and composers — some living, some dead — have influenced each selection. When, for instance, Lin plays “Eliza in Ascot” from My Fair Lady, you’d swear she was channeling Mozart. The arrangement is by German pianist and composer Stefan Malzew, who works with the German chanteuse Ute Lemper.
Listen to Richard Rodgers’ “Carousel Waltz” or “My Favorite Things,” as arranged by British pianist/composer Stephen Hough, and you hear Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.
Besides my friends, this album is also the perfect gift to myself. I love classical music and show tunes. After hearing Lin play selections from her CD at a Steinway-sponsored concert at the Schmitt Music store in Edina, Minn., I wanted to know more about her journey from the likes of Shostokovich, Beethoven and Chopin, to Porter, Sondheim, Rodgers and others. I interviewed her by phone at her home in New York. (You can also see clips of her being interviewed and performing in two recent documentaries, Speaking for Myself and Cooking for Jenny.)
Next Avenue: Jazz musicians have a history of reinterpreting show tunes — but not classical musicians. Has there ever been an album like Get Happy?
Jenny Lin: I’m not aware of another with this theme. Some of these songs have been recorded in mixed programs, but I wanted the album to be specifically classical. I placed more importance on the arrangers than the tunes.
Tell me about the arrangers and their arrangements.
The fact is I needed the arrangements to be by performing pianists. There are thousands of arrangements of these tunes. But very few are by pianists, especially classical or jazz pianists who have notated them."
When I started the project I used arrangements that existed from the past. As I went along I started to realize that I should include some of the great pianists we have today who are also amazing composers. All the arrangers of the pieces on this album are actively performing pianists, or were when they were alive.
Did you tell the pianists you contacted what songs you wanted?
No, these are great pianists. I was not going to dictate what they should do. I pretty much gave them carte blanche. They chose the songs they wanted to arrange. I got back exactly what I needed.
What about "Laura," from the classic film noir? That’s not a Broadway show tune.
The album says "show tunes for piano," not "Broadway show tunes." Some of them may have started on Broadway, but are more identified with a film, like Harold Arlen’s "Get Happy," which Judy Garland performed in Summer Stock. That was the case with George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” People don’t remember what show it came from. So many famous singers and jazz players have recorded it. Same with "Blue Skies."
The arrangement of "Laura" is by the Canadian-American pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin. I’ve known his work for years. I have so much respect for this man — who doesn’t? When I got "Laura" back I was expecting thousands of notes per page. Instead, I found just the opposite. On the first page he writes, "To be played so slowly that the meter almost disappears . . . a meditative improvisation." The arrangement is beautiful and very personal. It has shades of very late Scriabin.
Could you have performed these tunes in any other way but classical?
It would be very difficult because that’s how I was educated. If I had tried to make an album without the classical element it wouldn’t have been true to my roots.
Conceptually, how do you see the album?
It’s about successfully connecting one style with another. Nowadays, mixing genres is becoming more and more popular. I think this album really works. So many other different types of music today surround classical performers. It’s no longer just about learning Bach preludes and fugues or Beethoven sonatas.
You were born in Taiwan, but raised in Austria and Washington, D.C. How did that happen?
When I was little, Taiwan was a developing country. Immigrating to the West was much desired. They said I was very gifted and should go abroad. My parents decided Vienna would be a safe place for a child. At age 10, I went with my mother and younger brother. My father, who was a doctor, stayed in Taiwan. I learned so much about classical music in Austria, the country of Mozart. I absorbed the history and culture.
After about five years of living in Vienna, my parents thought it was better for me and my brother to go to America, where we could get a more rounded education and learn English. So my mother moved us to Washington. My father remained in Taiwan. He passed away in the 1990s.
When did you first hear show tunes?
I remember when I was a child my father would sing Cole Porter’s "Begin the Beguine," which is on the album. I didn’t know what a Broadway musical was until I saw The Sound of Music on TV in Austria. In Austria, it’s The Sound of Music everywhere you go.
Did anything get cut from Get Happy?
There is one piece, an arrangement by the American jazz avant-garde pianist Uri Caine, of Fats Waller’s "Honeysuckle Rose." It’s very different from the other arrangements, so we made it a bonus download on iTunes.
At the concert in Minnesota you played the title track of your CD, Harold Arlen’s "Get Happy." It stopped the show, as they say.
The arrangement is by Stephen Prutsman, who was known as "The Pianist" when we were students together at Peabody Conservatory. When I asked him to contribute, that’s what he picked. He sent me this absolutely brilliant and incredibly virtuosic stride arrangement, with 19th-century Romantic piano writing and a boogie-woogie ending. I feel like Liberace playing it.
Good—I like him too!