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‘A mash-up of jazz, carnivale, film, opera and poetry slam’: Laura Karpman’s ‘Ask Your Mama’ recorded in San Francisco

(1977) are built on classical structures that enchant at every poetic or colourful turn of phrase. Donald Rosenberg

Karpman  Ask Your Mama Angela Brown, Janai Brugger sops Nnenna  Freelon voc Blackthought, Questlove, Medusa  hip‑hop artists San Francisco Ballet Orchestra /  George Manahan  Avie M b AV2346 (101’ • DDD)

Be prepared for sensory overload while listening to Ask Your Mama, a sprawling work with music by Laura Karpman set to Langston Hughes’s eponymous epic poem. As a programme note describes it, the piece is ‘a mash-up of jazz, carnivale, film, opera and poetry slam’. The premiere recording of Ask Your Mama can’t include the film, but the rest of this audacious, mesmerising and exhausting creation is intact.

Hughes wrote the poems in 1961 under the title Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz to reflect not only his love of this wideranging genre of music but also to probe many aspects of African-American experience. Written entirely in capital letters, the text includes Hughes’s annotations about instruments, songs and even artists he admired.

Karpman’s setting of the poems takes Hughes’s suggestions at his word, preserving his musical wishes and employing recordings of major figures (including Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Temple, Marian Anderson and Louis Armstrong) in a continuous weave of styles. Schubert and others rub shoulders with hiphop and bebop; at one point, a snippet from ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ can be heard in overlapping recordings by Anderson, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman.

As a composer who works primarily in film, television and video games, Karpman has developed the skill to shift musical gears with ease. Her contributions to Ask Your Mama, in line with Hughes’s specific instructions, emerge more as extensions of the sources than as something truly original. But the melding of poetry (much of it recited by Hughes himself) and eclectic sonic languages is seamless and often powerful.

The score requires an enormous aggregate of performers from many musical worlds, and the recording doesn’t stint on distinguished artistry. Conductor George Manahan, who has been involved with the piece since its Carnegie Hall premiere in 2009, ties all of the strands together with authority. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra are keenly responsive to the music’s diverse hues, poetic flights and bursts of energy. And the array of soloists,

from soprano Angela Brown and Roots drummer Questlove to the recorded voices of musical icons, could hardly sound more apt in illuminating the dual visions of Hughes and Karpman. Donald Rosenberg

Kern  Show Boat  Heidi Stober sop ....................................... Magnolia Hawks Michael Todd Simpson bar ................. Gaylord Ravenal Bill Irwin sngr ......................................... Cap’n Andy Hawks Patricia Racette sop .....................................Julie La Verne Morris Robinson bass ........................................................ Joe Angela Renée Simpson sop ................................ Queenie Harriet Harris sngr .............................. Parthy Ann Hawks Kirsten Wyatt sngr ................................. Ellie Mae Chipley Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera /  John DeMain  Stage director Francesca Zambello  Video director Frank Zamacona  EuroArts F b ◊ 205 9688; F Y 205 9684 (144’ + 33’ • NTSC • 16:9 • 1080i • DTS-HD MA5.1, DTS5.1 & PCM stereo • 0 • S/s) Recorded live, June 2014 Bonus material: interviews with artists

What’s a Show Boat lover to do? There are so many versions of the seminal Jerome Kern/Oscar

Hammerstein II musical that a theatre or opera company must wrestle with myriad gramophone.co.uk

GRAMOPHONE SEPTEMBER 2015 III

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