GREEN EGGS & WALTZES

           "VERY OFTEN I'LL just walk out on stage," explains composer Rob Kapilow, "and the first thing I'll say is, 'What are the first three words of Green Eggs and Ham? And the entire audience will go, 'I am Sam.' I mean, there are very few opera librettos [like that]; could you walk out on stage and say, 'What are the first three words of Otello?' and have the audience know them by heart?"

           Audiences who missed the December performance of Kapilow's musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss's parable about prejudice will have another chance this Sunday as part of the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest. The previous production was the premiere of the orchestral version, commissioned by MO; the Sommerfest incarnation is the original, intimate chamber piece, first created for the New Jersey Chamber Music Society.

           Scored for a seven-piece wind band, piano, string bass, and a large battery of percussion (including xylophone, various sizes of gong, and toy crash cymbals), Kapilow's musical setting exploits the mantra-like repetitiveness of the text with clockwork rhythms tossed back and forth among the various instrument groups, and tweaked with the occasional dropped beat or meter shift. And just as Seuss's characters are more or less identifiable as people without resembling any whom we know, Kapilow's music, though it has recognizable elements, can't be pigeonholed. Sure, Kapilow quotes "I've Been Working on the Railroad" during the "would you, could you on a train?" part, and he sometimes responds to Seuss's whimsy with goofy chromaticisms reminiscent of circus music. But more than just pastiche, these conceits mirror the fantastic machines and bizarre social behaviors Seuss used satirically in his writing to needle the real world.

           This musical setting is the first ever allowed by the Seuss estate for a concert work. True to the composer's characterization of it as a "little opera," Green Eggs and Ham will be "semi-staged"--a combination of concert and theatrical performance. Kapilow did not intend for the performers "to just stand there behind music stands and sing." Without making any direct references to Seuss's visual style, director Matthew Vaky has put plenty of activity into the staging, and has taken a cue from the artist's spare but playful drawings in his light-handed use of costumes and props--which include the foodstuffs. "We still have the green ham," Asadour Santourian, MO's artistic director, assures me, "and we're getting our equipment ready...the eggs are actual eggs, fried green." He adds, with a face like a society lady contemplating Stravinsky, "I wouldn't put 'em in my mouth!"

           Of course, the staple of MO's Viennese Sommerfest--after one has also sampled the brats and waffle cones--is the 19th-century European dance music of the "Vienna Waltz Factory." Now, this is the first time I have come out publicly on this, but I love the waltzes and polkas of Johann Strauss; they are the bourgeois Häagen-Dazs hidden at the back of my musical freezer. I know, I know--they aren't "serious" music, and their historical provenance is enough to make any good liberal wince. (I always think of that ballroom scene in Reds when I hear this stuff.) But what can I say? Offer me the Emperor Waltz--which is headlining the July 31 Sommerfest concert--and I'll drop everything.

           Especially when there's contemporary American music on the same bill. Audiences can hear the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis's Lament and Prayer, and the Midwest premiere of his Air, along with the Emperor Waltz and the debut of the long-lost Tauben Waltz. Kernis is a composer who has enjoyed great success in Minnesota; the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra commissioned his Too Hot Toccata, as well as Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, which audiences can hear in February. But for now, it's summertime in Minneapolis--pass me the Häagen-Dazs. (Scott Robinson)

           Green Eggs and Ham features Vera Mariner reprising her role as The Grouch and Chase Herschman as the indefatigable Sam, with members of the Minnesota Orchestra; the concert will also include a performance ofThe Seven Sneezes by Minnesota composer Libby Larsen . Sunday, July 28, 2 p.m. at Orchestra Hall; 371-5656.

 
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