André Kostelanetz

Blues Opera

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The story is somewhat complicated. Composer Harold Arlen had a 1946 Broadway musical called St. Louis Woman that was a flop but had a memorable score. Producer-director Robert Breen was looking for another "folk opera" like Porgy and Bess, which, in the early '50s, had a successful international tour. He prevailed upon Arlen to revisit the score of St. Louis Woman and expand it into a "blues opera." Arlen did so, and it opened on Broadway in December 1959 under the title Free and Easy, where it ran briefly, followed by an abortive European tour that played only nine performances in Paris. Before that happened, in 1957, André Kostelanetz got wind of the work-in-progress and commissioned Samuel Matlowsky to arrange and orchestrate a suite based on it, which he performed with the New York Philharmonic under the title "Blues Opera Suite" and recorded for Columbia soon after. When the production went down in flames, all that remained was the Columbia LP titled Blues Opera, consisting of Kostelanetz's versions of four Arlen song standards -- "Out of This World," "That Old Black Magic," "Stormy Weather," and "Blues in the Night" -- plus the 26-minute, two-part suite. But this historical background is not necessary for the listener to enjoy the results, which basically amount to an album of Kostelanetz's treatments of Arlen's best-known tunes. Since several well-known Arlen melodies are woven into the suite -- "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home," "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," "Come Rain or Come Shine" -- it, along with the added songs, constitutes an instrumental best-of for the composer, all cleverly arranged and authoritatively conducted, bringing out Arlen's familiar blues sense in a full-bodied orchestral setting. If only there were a recording of the stage production itself!