'Charlie Parker's Yardbird': His elusive score

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Lawrence Brownlee (left) sings the part of jazz great Charlie Parker, with Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan and Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie in Opera Philadelphia's production of "Charlie Parker's Yardbird." DOMINIC M. MERCIER

Things you will hear in Charlie Parker's Yardbird when it has its Opera Philadelphia world premiere Friday night: a reference to Stravinsky and a musical quote from Beethoven, the flavor of the Great American Songbook, and street-cool jazz harmonies so modern they really occupy the haze between jazz and avant-garde classical.

What you won't hear is any material from Parker's magnum opus, a work for large orchestra. The jazzman, nicknamed Yardbird, never was able to write it, and it is his pursuit of the chimera that forms the dramatic backbone of this new chamber opera.

Even for geniuses, the grass is always greener, and Charlie Parker's Yardbird offers its main character something of a shot at resolution, if not redemption. The action after his death in 1955 at age 34 - just a few more years than Schubert got - follows his spirit.

"I'm going to write a score! I can hear the music in my head, feel it in my heart!" sings Parker to a Middle Eastern melodic line. "A full orchestra singing beautifully . . ." Here, a piano and slide whistle alight on his wish with quick, high birdsong.

Birds caged and freed figure prominently in the piece. The opera, with music by composer/saxophonist Daniel Schnyder and libretto by playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly, is not a straight biographical account of a tragic surrender to heroin, or the story of bebop and other breakthroughs during jazz's great, explosive period of innovation. Rather, Parker's post-death quest to write a full-orchestra piece becomes a vehicle for revisiting characters from his past - his wives, Dizzy Gillespie, jazz patroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, and others. It is about progressions both personal and chordal.

"He had no formal education in music, so the whole thing about an orchestra and writing for that many instruments was probably beyond his scope," said Harlem-based Wimberly. "In the 34 years that he was here, he said he had learned to write for one voice, certainly not a full orchestra, and then as it goes on we see the difficulty of him doing it.

"In the end, he didn't write an orchestra piece, and we weren't going to have him write a false one. But I feel that what he passed on was that he inspired so many people to create, he opened up the doors, he set the birds free, the people free, the music free, like with what he did with the blues. What he did for jazz itself was allow others to do what he was not able to do in his lifetime."

An opera about Charlie Parker - Opera Philadelphia's first full-opera world premiere since 1976 - sprang from a desire to create a vehicle for a very different kind of musician: bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who sings the part of Parker. Opera Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris heard Schnyder's music at a concert in Lausanne, Switzerland, and liked it. They started talking.

"We discussed different topics and librettists," said Schnyder, a Swiss-born American who now lives in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. "First a Brazilian story. That didn't really work out. I wanted to do something for Larry's type of voice, which is very special. He can sing very high and very fast, and for a long time very high, and there are not that many tenors who can do that. And then I came up with this idea about doing an opera about Charlie Parker."

Rovaris says the score Schnyder produced is in two languages - jazz and classical (though within those two languages one hears vernacular even more local) - which required some extra work for an orchestra of 15 classical musicians. In jazz, "there are things you can write and things that can't be written," says Rovaris. "The classical side takes care of itself, so, yes, we talk about things like dynamics and phrasing. But [in jazz], well, maybe there are things you want, and you write an eighth note but it's really a triplet in the end. We had to work more on that."

Schnyder demonstrated some of these stylistic subtleties himself on flute and sax, videotaping them and having video links e-mailed to orchestra musicians ahead of time.

Schnyder says jazz before 1950 shows up in classical music - in Ravel, Milhaud, and Gershwin - but jazz from after 1950 not as much. "After that, there was a big divide between classical and jazz, for whatever reason. I think with an opera like this we can bridge these two worlds and show that music is one big garden without borders."

Perhaps more aviary than garden, Charlie Parker's Yardbird gives its namesake wings he never had. Upon starting this project, Schnyder had only second-hand information that Parker had harbored a wish to write for orchestra. It was after the opera was essentially done that he learned from composer Gunther Schuller - who long ago achieved an elegant equilibrium on the jazz-classical high wire - that this was the case.

"He wanted to go into an orchestral format. Gunther Schuller told me that he spoke with Parker exactly about that," says Schnyder. "It was something he was not allowed to do at the time because there was a racial barrier between classical music and jazz musicians."

That Charlie Parker's Yardbird arrives on stage at a time when many are reexamining the African American experience is not something Opera Philadelphia - which co-commissioned and co-produced the work with Gotham Chamber Opera - could have anticipated several years ago at the germination of this idea. But it is serendipitous nonetheless, says Rovaris. Art gains urgency when it can connect with events and issues unfolding in the world outside it.

"I think sometimes we consider too much the entertainment side of our job," he says. "It's always important to find a balance, so the thinking doesn't stop with the last note."


OPERA

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

 

Presented by Opera Company of Philadelphia, Friday through June 14 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets.

Tickets: $95-$125.

Information: 215-893-1018 or www.operaphila.org


pdobrin@phillynews.com

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