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Celebrating The Centennial Of 1918 Landmark Moments In Music

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Rosa Ponselle (top left), Leonard Bernstein (top right), Pearl Bailey (bottom left) and Claude Debussy (bottom right)

My OCD tendencies were satisfied when I decided to make this list of artists for whom 2018 is a significant anniversary.

Leonard Bernstein, born Aug. 25, 1918

You know all about this. Classical 101 has been proud to join the worldwide celebration of the Leonard Bernstein birthday centennial. 

You'll find plenty of Bernstein posts here by hosts Jennifer, Kent, Cheryl and even me.

I'll never forget the audience anticipation waiting for Bernstein to come out and conduct at the Met in 1983.

Likewise, his performance of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, "Resurrection" was a great experience from the cheap sets in Carnegie Hall.

He was the only conductor I heard who got the "whisper" just before the contralto sang "O Roschen Rot," a whisper in the orchestra you could hear everywhere while still being a whisper.

Call me up, and I'll tell your grandchildren all about hearing Bernstein conduct at the Met and in Carnegie Hall.

Pearl Bailey, born March 29, 1918 (died Aug. 17, 1990)

Pearlie Mae, boys and girls. Saw her in Hello, Dolly! at the Colonial Theatre in Boston around 1975. She'd played it on Broadway, she'd recorded the show and she did it her own way, thank you very much.

The audience roared.  

Only partial-view tickets were available. The woman in the box office said, "Don’t worry, honey, there’s nothing to see in this show unless Miss Bailey is walking all the way down front." She was great.

But if you want Bailey at her hottest, you have to go to Carmen Jones:

Claude Debussy, died March 25, 1918 (born Aug. 22, 1962)

Think of the composers who really shook things up — the ones who were forcing audiences to listen in a new way. Debussy goes at the top of this list.

His use of chromaticism made Richard Wagner look like a graduate student. Debussy could achieve a timelessness in music, with opaque textures that can be addictive.

Debussy is all about texture. Try the evocation of the sea, La mer. Listen to the piano preludes. Imagine what it was like for an audience accustomed to Mozart, Schubert and Brahms to hear these works when new.

If that's not enough, read up on Debussy's love life and learn all about sensualite in music. I can't quote what critic Virgil Thomson said happens 11 times in Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande.  

Rosa Ponselle, debuted at the Metropolitan Opera on Nov. 15, 1918

Rose Ponzillo, from Meriden, Connecticut, the daughter of Italian immigrants, made her debut at the Met four days after the end of World War I.

She was 21 years old and had never appeared in opera. The performance was Verdi's La Forza del Destino, and a force of destiny it was. 

Rechristened Rosa Ponselle, the young woman had spent three years on the vaudeville circuit with her older sister Carmela, in an act that combined opera and pop called Those Two Tailored Girls.

It was during a voice lesson that the great tenor Enrico Caruso heard Ponselle. He brought her to the Met. The brass was impressed. Impresario Giulio Gatti-Casazza engaged her at once.

"Listen to me," the padrone told Caruso. "If she makes good, this American, every door will be open to American singers. If she doesn't make good, I take the next boat to Italy, and America will never see me again."

Gatti-Casazza spent another 20 years in America. Ponselle, to this day, is one of the greatest of all names in opera.

I met her once. I was in college. A buddy's parents knew her.

Ponselle was an old lady, living in splendor in her Italian villa outside Baltimore. She was lovely and gracious to a tongue-tied kid.

Arthritis prevented her from signing her name to an autograph. So she pressed her heavily made-up lips to a piece of paper.

I got a lip print from Rosa Ponselle. Did you?

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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