Alexander Lafayette Chew Wilder (1907-1980) studied composition and counterpoint, but was largely a self taught composer. The artist created an extremely wide variety of music from classical chamber and soloist work to operas, film scores, jazz, musicals, revues, and popular song- occasionally writing his own lyrics. Through the latter, he became friends with appreciators Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Mabel Mercer, and Tony Bennett.
The artist was equally lauded and criticized by factions perhaps desiring loyalty to a genre. His classification-defying work, often called conservative, features intelligence and sensitivity. Whitney Balliett described him as “The President of the Derriere-garde” in a 1973 New Yorker essay. A year later, the author published Alec Wilder and His Friends: A Small Aristocracy.
“There was no ambition to be famous, no desire to have pieces played by famous orchestras, no secret wish for commissions or prizes or for being “taken up” by prominent art lovers. I simply hoped I could learn to do something well.” Alec Wilder
Mark Walter; Steve Ross
Mark Walter, son of pianist/composer CY Walter, (friend and frequent collaborator of Alec Wilder), welcomes us, introducing Honorary Host Steve Ross. Citing the variety in Wilder’s work, Ross asks “who could forget the erotic-oh!-neurotic Goldfish Octet.” Instead of continuing on a light note, however, a chamber work called Prologue is played by The Wilderness Trio (Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Pfaffle, Ron Stabinsky). Though executed well, it’s long, dense and often dissonant.
Jonathan Fowler, Ron Stabinsky, Elizabeth Pfaffle
Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano (Sean Smith on bass) give us a real taste of Wilder’s popular work. Comstock’s “Who Can I Turn To?” (Alec Wilder/William Engvick)…Where can I go/How can I face it alone…” is a fox trot the tempo of relaxed breath. Instrumental parenthesis is lovely. A last vocal note floats. Jaunty and bright, “The Next Time Around” (Cy Walter/Alec Wilder) is described by Ross as channeling a Jerry Herman show tune. “I’m positive we’ll make our love swing…” Comstock sings as he does just that.
Barbara Fasano brings precision and control to a seductive “Give Me Time” (Alec Wilder) making skill look easy. “Blackberry Winter”(Alec Wilder/Loonis McGlohon) follows. It’s rueful and cottony with light piano and muted bass. The vocalist evocatively creates melodic hush. Comstock reads from James Kaplan’s two volume biography of Sinatra describing Wilder as mustachioed and handsome in an old money way. Old Blue Eyes nicknamed him “the professor.” Unlike everyone else, Wilder seemed to have no inclination to kiss up to the crooner which Sinatra perceived as class.
Eric Comstock, Barbara Fasano, Sean Smith
A duet of “Where is the One?” (Edwin Finkel/Alex Wilder) finds Fasano sharing the piano bench with her husband. The trio’s portion of the show closes with a cheerily swung “Summer Is A- Comin’ In” (Alec Wilder/Marshall Barer), the epitome of copacetic sophistication. (Eric and Barbara will be at Cafe Sabarsky – The Neue Galerie on November 30, 2023.)
The Wildebeest Wind Quintet (Michel Gentile, Nathan Koci, Michael McGinnis, Katie Scheele, Sara Shoenbeck) play Wilder’s droll Alice in Wonderland Suite. Musicians dress somewhat fancifully for performance adding atmosphere. They smile at one another between phases. If set on opening classical, why not this one? Two serious pieces weighed down the program resulting in necessary cuts to popular songs the audience came to hear.
Michel Gentile, Nathan Koci, Michael McGinnis, Katie Scheele, Sara Shoenbeck
Jason Henderson, a fairly new asset to New York cabaret, talk/sings the rarely heard “Unbelievable” (Alec Wilder/William Engvick) in a manner that, in fact, makes every word empathetic and credible. Looking into audience faces, the artist connects. “Is It Always Like This?” (Alec Wilder) emerges tender and affecting. The room quiets in silent agreement. Jason will be at Don’t Tell Mama December 4th, 2023 with Getting to Noel You (Noel Coward). Zachary Drake performs the seemingly difficult “Time and Tide” (Cy Walter/Alec Wilder) as if monotone (Jack Lipson-Piano).
Jason Henderson; Zachary Drake
Steve Ross shares the story of when he met Alec Wilder, then renders a tender, almost fragile “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s?” (Alec Wilder) written for Mabel Mercer: Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s/ Where the white houses cling to the hill?/ Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s? /Do you think that you ever will? (Jack Lipson-Piano)
As is tradition, the audience is invited to join in a group sing of Wilder’s “I’ll Be Around” (Alec Wilder) lead by Ross at the piano.
The program is edifying and entertaining, if poorly structured.
Opening: Left: Alec Wilder courtesy of Mark Walter;
Right: Undated self portrait (Alec Wilder Archive, Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music) Courtesy of The Friends of Alec Wilder
Performance photos: Michael Stever
See you next year.