John Musto and ‘The Great American Songbook’

Even though John Musto has enjoyed the production of three new operas, with a fourth, “The Inspector,” to premiere at the Wolf Trap Opera Company in April in Virginia, and his first opera, “Volpone,” was nominated for a 2010 Grammy, one can’t assume Musto is just an opera guy.

“I’m an everything guy,” Musto told The Malibu Times by phone last week.

Aside from operas, Musto has composed piano concertos, chamber music and ragtime, and he grew up playing the American standards that he will bring to the Pepperdine University campus Raitt Recital Hall on Sunday as part of the university’s Stotsenberg Recital Series.

The evening, billed as “The Great American Songbook,” is tied to the summer SongFest program that has taken place on the campus for 16 years. SongFest is an intensive performance-training program for young artists to work with such internationally renowned faculty members as famed collaborative pianist Martin Katz, who has been involved since the inception, and such composers as Pulitzer Prize winner John Harbison, who is a member of the advisory board and has taught during seven summers.

“SongFest is, to my knowledge, the only summer musical conclave devoted primarily to song and oratorio material,” Harbison said. “At a time when singers and pianists have less and less chance to develop these skills, a time when opera is increasingly the only career path, SongFest grows in importance. Regardless of what direction the students take in their musical lives, the chance to work on Schubert with Graham Johnson, or Bach with the Emmanuel Music group, or living composers of the caliber of John Musto, is unique.”

The month-long summer experience, from June 1 to 27, culminates in six to eight performances at Raitt Hall, free and open to the public. Musto is the faculty member who actually introduced “The Great American Songbook” into the summer curriculum. It was so popular, the Stotsenberg Recital Series is devoting an entire concert to the concept on Jan. 9.

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On Sunday, baritone David Krohn and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Beattie, who are SongFest Marc and Eva Stern Fellowship Singers, will accompany Musto. SongFest Director Rosemary Hyler Ritter chose the two for many reasons.

“We are covering a lot of different kinds of music,” she said. “I wanted singers who could perform opera, as well as musical theater, singers who communicated well with an audience and had wonderful personalities.”

The evening’s songbook runs a large gamut, from the earliest 1911 A. Seymour Brown/Nathaniel D. Ayer selection, “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” to 1977’s “She’s Always a Woman to Me,” by Billy Joel, and so much in between, from the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim.

“[There’s] something for everybody,” Musto said.

Musto grew up with a well-rounded musical appreciation. He began piano around the age of four, soon followed by guitar, then organ in church. He simply defines himself as a musician.

“Two hundred years ago, you weren’t a musician if you weren’t a composer,” Musto said. “Everyone played and composed, and wrote operas. Everyone did everything.

“Today we’re so compartmentalized. I grew up playing in rock bands and singing folk songs with my brother,” continued Musto, whose 17-year-old son Joshua, with wife soprano Amy Burton, is a heavy metal guitarist. “One of my pastimes today is playing bluegrass music and it all seeps into what I write. My music would not sound the way it does if I had not been steeped in George Gershwin, and Stephen Stills and Randy Newman.”

“The Great American Songbook “concert takes place at 2 p.m. at Raitt Recital Hall on the Pepperdine University Campus. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 310.506.4522 or online at www.arts.pepperdine.edu/tickets. There will be a meet and great with the artists following the show in the Smothers Courtyard.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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