Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Never Too Late: The Songs of Jan Horvath

Now this is different! Usually when a Broadway performer releases a CD, it’s of classic show tunes or love songs in traditional arrangements. Not Jan Horvath, who proves with these 11 songs she wrote that she’s got the heart of a country girl, and a crystal clear voice to go with it.

I really enjoy “Country Lilt,” a quirky little love song reminiscent of those by Kate and Anna McGarrigle: “So if you’re not waiting at the pearly gate/I won’t have to think or even hesitate/I’ll give all the angels back their wings/Their golden harps and all of their things/Yes if you’re not in heaven on judgment day/I’ll know you’ve gone the other way/So to show you that my love is true/I’ll go to hell dear just for you.” What fun!

For inspiration, Horvath includes “Questions” and “Never Too Late,” songs about finding your true path in life, and a lovely number called “Immigrant’s Anthem,” which she premiered with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in 2005, and most recently sang with The Rochester Philharmonic on a barge in the Erie Canal with about 14,000 people lining the shores. A well-deserved honor; I hope she will have many more opportunities to present it.

As a music critic I am blessed with receiving many CDs that entertain or enrich me. Horvath’s does both. I was fortunate to have this one given to me personally instead of the usual route -- by the FedEx man courtesy of a publicist. I met Jan at Broadway Blessing -- she’s a friend of Phil Hall who was performing (and whom I now consider a friend too!).

Thanks for coming to BB, Jan, and thanks for bringing me this CD. I’m grateful to have it in my collection.

To learn more about Jan Horvath visit her web site at JanHorvath.com. “Never Too Late” is available at http://cdbaby.com/cd/horvathjan.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Dining Room

I love sitting back and watching Gurney-world. His plays are laugh-out-loud funny, but not in a cruel way.
“The Dining Room” is different from other plays of his I’ve seen in that it is MULTI-charactered. The six first-rate actors -- Anne McDonough, Timothy McCracken, Dan Daily, Claire Lautier, Samantha Soule and Mark J. Sullivan -- play about 50 different parts, WASPs of several generations and their servants. The common theme is the importance, or lack thereof, of gathering around the dining room table, and it is portrayed in unrelated scenes. Director Jonathan Silverstein does a lovely job of keeping it all rolling.
I grew up Irish Catholic and not WASP, but my mother had so many of the same sensibilities as the older generation here. We ate dinner every night in the dining room, by candlelight, with the silver and linen napkins, the whole nine yards, only without the servants. Many of the scenes in the play hit home to me, but one in particular brought back memories. Two teenage girls are sitting around the table drinking a mixture of vodka, gin and Fresca waiting for some boys to come over to smoke pot. Helen, the girl who is visiting, is impressed and wants to stay there when the boys arrive. Sarah, who lives there, wants no part of the dining room and all it represents -- formality, gentility, proper ways of doing things.
I was that girl, and the visiting girl in reverse. The first time I had dinner at my grade school friend Terry Hagen’s house I was enthralled because we ate TV dinners in the kitchen with her family. I had never had a TV dinner and was fascinated. We had gone to the stores and selected them, which meant that everybody could have something different and exactly what they wanted. Then we ate them in the containers, which was so cool because the vegetables, potatoes and meat each had their own little walled space instead of all being on a china plate. I thought how lucky Terry was and when I got home I asked my mother if we could start eating TV dinners in the kitchen. Absolutely not, but she did let me do it the next time she went out for dinner. It just wasn’t as much fun doing it by myself. I had never given a thought to eating in the dining room by candlelight, but from then on I envied Terry and her TV dinners in the kitchen. In the play when it is suggested that people nowadays eat in the kitchen, the older generation is horrified and makes it perfectly clear they will not. My mother would agree.
Originally produced in 1982, this delightful revival of “The Dining Room” is presented by Keen Company, which did a poignantly beautiful production of “Tea and Sympathy” earlier this year. It runs through Oct. 14 at The Clurman Theater on Theatre Row.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


What a lovely discovery! I had never heard of Joshua Williams, who wrote and composed the 12 songs on this CD, but his web site says this is his third release. I’ll have to look into the others.

I had reservations initially when I saw the title of the first song -- “Loser for Jesus.” The negativity of the word loser paired with Jesus made me think of that derogatory term from the late 70s, Jesus freak. One listen, though, and I was hooked, as well as dancing and singing along to this country/rock composition. The words make it clear just what kind of loser Williams is talking about: “’Cause I’m a loser for Jesus Christ/I’ve given my all; yes I’m learning to die/I’m a loser for Jesus Christ/I’m ready to lose my life.”

It’s a lively start to a CD that offers a variety of styles. The title track, “Confession,” is a gentle change, with its simple guitar arrangements of Samuel Medley’s 1785 words of contrition and reliance on God’s love and forgiveness to give eternal life.

I also like “Rock of My Salvation” with its catchy folk/rock melody, and the upbeat “This is My God,” which makes my heart soar. The variety continues with “Song Five” and the comforting and beautiful voice of his wife, Kerry Williams, singing the joyful words of the Song of Songs.

In the boldest offering, “Luke 14:26,” Williams is courageous enough to tackle one the most difficult passages in the gospels, Jesus’ tough statement about the need to hate those who are closest to us. I know clergy who avoid this lesson by preaching on the Epistle on the Sunday it appears. But following Jesus isn’t just about joy and praise, it has its challenges as well. Once again with the simplicity of guitar, Williams sings about seeing Jesus perform miracles, feed the hungry, forgive the sinner, and then the shocking part: “But today He did something that/I’ve never seen before/He turned to the largest crowd and said aloud,/ ‘This is from the Lord’/He said you have to hate your father,/and hate your mother/I don’t understand, I can’t comprehend,/. . . I don’t want to know, this can’t be so,/do I really have to die to my life?”

Then he recounts other marvels he has witnessed in following Jesus, including the clincher of them all: “But today He did something that/I’ve never seen before/He gave His life and was crucified,/I know now He is the Lord.” And he understands the context of Jesus’ words, that “this is what love is for. . . I will come to know, ‘cause He told me so,/what it means to die to my life.”

That’s rigorous theology to put over in a song, but Williams doesn’t soft-pedal it, and he reminds us of the daily task we have of putting aside this life for the purpose of advancing God’s kingdom.

I can imagine this CD being a big hit with Christian youth groups, in religious education, on retreats and in church services, but it’s also a good listen everyday for anyone on the journey of faith. You can hear selections at Williams’ web site, www.newdayministry.org, and you can order a copy from www.winepressbooks.com. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Impulse of His Love

At first, Karen Piranian Burgman didn’t realize the full impact of what was happening to her. Only a junior in high school, having just won a major competition, she had every reason to expect a fruitful career as a pianist.

But the pain in her hands kept getting worse, creeping in between her fingers until she couldn’t play for more than 10 minutes. The seriousness still didn’t really hit until the hand surgeon looked her in the eye and told her she would never play again, and suggested she take up swimming.

“I was crying,” she remembers. “I said: ‘This isn’t my hobby. This is my life.’ I had studied since I was 5.”

When the shock wore off, she was able to acknowledge something she had actually known all along, music wasn’t her life, God was. And God was getting ready to show her just how well-placed her trust had been. Her career as a pianist wasn’t over. Instead, she was to get an education no conservatory could ever provide. She would use her hands again, but she’d be playing from her soul.

“I had no other agenda except to say what God had done in my life,” said Ms. Burgman, 25, one morning during a telephone interview from her home in North Wales, PA. “Playing the piano is how I express my love for him. Now I feel I have so much more to say.”

Ms. Burgman has poured all her praise and thankfulness into a CD, “The Impulse of His Love,” released this summer by Paraclete Press. It’s a piece of work she never could have anticipated on that day when her tendinitis was diagnosed.

“I had thought, ‘There’s 13 years of training down the drain.’”

But more training was in store, thanks to Sandra Carlock, the coach of a trio of which Ms. Burgman was a member, who offered to work with her one-on-one to help her relearn to play. This involved teaching her to relax, to be in tune with her body and to feel the weight of her fingers on the keys.

A year and a half later, she was off to Oberlin Conservatory for a major in piano performance. The following summer, while she was home in North Wales, her friend Ron Lamar told her she had to make a CD as a way of telling her story.

“I said, ‘I’m just a kid. I’ve just gotten over this injury.’”

But Mr. Lamar held firm and so Ms. Burgman began choosing hymns. She knew “Take My Life and Let It Be” had to be one of them, with its lyrics “take my hands and let them move at the impulse of your love.” She had been playing the piano at her church, Hilltown Baptist, since she was in 10th grade, so she was familiar with many hymns. In improvising them for piano solos, she felt she could personalize them to share her journey.

For three or four weeks she lovingly recorded her arrangements of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “The Lord’s Prayer” and 11 others. The hymns sounded beautiful and when she was finished she and Mr. Lamar sat down to listen to the tapes. But as they played them, what they heard was not so lovely after all. Birds that had made their home in the ventilation system had been picked up by the high definition recording equipment and could be heard on every number.

“It wasn’t some pretty little birds chirping,” she says. “It was really ugly.”

Not willing to give up, Mr. Lamar said he had the studio for one last hour the next day so they would go back and do the entire program then. Ms. Burgman was aghast. She had poured her whole self into that work. She told him she was spent.

“He said, ‘Then you better get down on your knees and pay for a miracle.’”

She went home and told God she had nothing left to give, that she was empty.

“He said, ‘’That’s exactly where I want you to be.’ I asked the Lord to work through me.”

Once again trusting God, she returned to the studio and improvised all 13 songs in one hour. “I get chills talking about it now,” she says. “He took over my hands. I never played like that before. I was crying. My heart and soul came out in it. That’s what the CD is. It’s unedited, all in one take. It summed up the way God was working in my life.”

For four years she sold the recording on her own at church and her concerts. Then a friend gave one to someone in the acquisitions department at Paraclete and another minor miracle occurred. They wanted to represent her and market the CD the very week she sold her last. Since being released in July, “It has absolutely flown off the shelves here at Paraclete,” said Rachel McKendree, music publicist.

Ms. Burgman thinks she understands why.

“There’s an interest in hymns that basically give a new sound,” she says. “People appreciate the depth of theology, but played with a personal testimony of a life touched by God. It reaches people. There’s no more powerful way to communicate than through the arts.”

To continue this work, she and her husband, Michael, a middle school English teacher, have formed a company, Lifespring Music, for future projects, including a Christmas CD of piano improvisations.

“This thing has a life of its own,” she says. “It’s so much bigger than I ever imagined. God’s hand is in it. It’s been his.”

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