(Photo: Mike Martin)
How do you explain hearing an evening of American- and European cabaret music from the early- to mid 20th century as one of the events of the 2011 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival? It is quite simple: Yeheskall Beinisch, chairman of the JICMF, met Steve Ross at a party in the USA and spontaneously suggested he come to Jerusalem to give a performance at the JICMF, now celebrating its 14th year. On September 9th 2011, the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA was packed to capacity with people for whom the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Gershwin and Édith Piaf was familiar.
Steve Ross was born in New Rochelle, New York. As a child, he lay under the piano, enraptured at hearing his mother playing songs of Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Gershwin - “all those standards that were collapsing around me”. Ross studied the piano and, following studies at Georgetown University and a stint in the US army, relocated to New York City in the early 1970’s, where he worked as a “background piano player”. In NYC, Ross played in venues that required him to sing and so he began voice training studies. (Steve told me that voice-training for him is an ongoing focus and that today he still enjoys and benefits from working with top voice teachers.)
Ross’s work in the popular New York “Backstage” piano bar and restaurant attracted a steady clientele eager to hear his repertoire of American songs; it was there that artists such as Liza Minnelli and Ginger Rogers were known to have stood up spontaneously to sing with him. In New York Ross developed his reputation of communicating easily with audiences, entertaining them well, often plying them with the tongue-twister lyrics of Cole Porter songs. His career spiraled when he became the first cabaret performer of the Algonquin Hotel’s newly opened “Oak Room”. Instrumental in the cabaret revival of New York, Ross has spent many years taking his show further afield - to the London Ritz, to “Pizza in the Park” (London), to Australia, Brazil, to festivals in many countries, yet still performing the length and breadth of America, as well as On-and-Off Broadway. Ross’s performance at the 2011 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival was his Israeli debut.
Seating himself at the piano, Ross begins by apologizing for the fact that he does not play Brahms or Schubert. He opens with Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz”:
‘Have you seen the well-to-do?
Up and down Park Avenue?
On that famous thoroughfare,
With their noses in the air?
High hats and arrowed collars,
Wide spats and fifteen dollars.
Spending every dime,
For a wonderful time.’
Taking the audience for a wistful, whimsical and, indeed, romantic stroll down the memory lane of the golden age of the sentimental music of the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s, Ross first presents a selection of songs by Eddie Kantor, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Gershwin. The piano is Ross’s band, adding color, rhythm, tenderness, magic and virtuosic panache to the songs… as well as some amusing interludes: interrupting Irving Berlin’s decidedly erotic “I Love a Piano” (1915) the artist suddenly quotes the pompous opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto and, later, the much-loved and naïve C major Mozart Piano Sonata you may have played many years ago as a young piano student.
Cole Porter is high up on Ross’s list of favorites; much of the evening’s program focused on Cole Porter songs, including a number of songs from “Anything Goes” (1934) - “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’d Be So Easy to Love”, “Anything Goes”, and more. We heard “I’ve Got You Under my Skin”, (1936) a hit that became a signature song for Frank Sinatra and “Just One of Those Things” written by Cole Porter in 1935 for the musical “Jubilee”. The audience was reminded of Fred Astaire’s unforgettable role in “Night and Day”, a performance ushering in a new era of filmed dance in the movie “The Gay Divorcee” (1934) and Astaire’s "tripping the light fantastic” with Ginger Rogers in “Swing Time” (1936). Ross claims that what Porter and he have in common is the fact that they both fell in love with Paris and in Paris. As a Valentine to Paris, Steve Ross conjured up the sparkle of “La Ville-Lumière” and its enticing setting for romance (not forgetting its disappointments) in the wonderful “I Love Paris in the Springtime” and “C’est magnifique” (It’s Magnificent) both from Can-Can (1953), with the audience now less guarded and gently humming along in these numbers.
Another association with Fred Astaire was George Gershwin’s downhearted “A Foggy Day (in London Town” (lyrics Ira Gershwin), introduced by Astaire in the 1937 film “A Damsel in Distress”.
‘A foggy day in London town,
Had me low, had me down.
I viewed the morning with such alarm,
British Museum had lost its charm.’
This was followed by “S’Wonderful”, also written by the Gershwin brothers, for the Broadway musical “Funny Face” (1927) and introduced by Allen Kearns and Adele Astaire (Fred Astaire’s older sister.) Both numbers took the listener back to the heyday of the big band, with its polished, velvety brass instrument playing.
One of the highlights of the evening was a piano medley of Édith Piaf songs, with Ross giving his all, creating a vibrant and moving canvas of the bittersweet songs of the 40’s and 50’s Piaf had sung in Paris nightclubs, for the German forces in occupied France and also in the USA, her songs fired with inspiration and energy but also tinged with the tragedy of her life.
Steve Ross has been performing for 50 years. His voice is as bright and pleasing as his personality. With few spoken words and many sounds, Ross places the music centre stage, using the rich palette of his art to invite his audience to reminisce, to smile, to shed a tear, to take the nostalgic journey back to the time when romance was in vogue, when show-biz people looked chic and when hits reached the status of greatness. Communicating and singing out to his audience, one might almost forget that Ross was also the superb, spontaneous pianist accompanying the program.
The evening was drawing to a close; Steve Ross signed out with two Irving Berlin songs. With the audience in the palm of his hand, there was now no need for Ross to invite the people gathered at the Jerusalem YMCA to join him in singing Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek”. How could one not resist indulging in just one more moment to savor this wonderful era of music?