American Classics was created during the winter of 1995-1996 when song duo Mary Ann Lanier & Sylvie Stewart (The Camptown Ladies, performing with pianist Robert Humphreville), voice and piano duo Benjamin Sears & Bradford Conner, and pianist Margaret Ulmer banded together around their love of American music. Originally a summer series at the Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, American Classics also added concerts for American Music Week and the holiday season to their schedule. Concerts of songs and piano music, in solo and group programs, ranging from the Colonial Era and William Billings, through Civil War songs of Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work, to beloved parlor songs of the late nineteenth century, onto Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood highlighted the first seasons.
In 1999 American Classics moved just across the Cambridge Common to the Pickman Concert Hall of the Longy School of Music. The Fifth Season in 2000 brought their first concert musical, a reconstruction of Irving Berlin’s first Broadway score, Watch Your Step, unperformed since it closed in 1915. The success of that venture led to another reconstruction, a critically acclaimed concert revival of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s The Band Wagon with skits by George S. Kaufman and Howard Dietz. The Band Wagon had not been revived since its original 1931 run on Broadway and succeeding tour. The production received a special IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) award. In 2002, American Classics presented Irving Berlin’s Stop! Look! Listen!, Berlin’s second musical, created in 1915 in the first known revival of the show since its original run. In 2003 a rare revival of Rodgers & Hart’s groundbreaking Peggy-Ann was given, and 2004 brought the Boston premiere of the original 1927 Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman and George & Ira Gershwin. For the Tenth Anniversary Season, Cole Porter joined the roster with 50 Million Frenchmen and for the 2009-2010 season Irving Berlin’s Yip! Yip! Yaphank! received its first revival since 1918.
Concerts saluting songwriters and performers round out the American Classics programing, including Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Scott Joplin, Jerome Kern, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, the great Girl Groups, and songs written for the great showman Florenz Ziegfeld. Women composers were an important part of the series, including Amy Beach, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Ann Ronell, Kay Swift (the first woman to write a complete Broadway score), and Dana Suesse (also known as “The Girl Gershwin”). Ragtime was a large part of two seasons (including the group’s first “festival” – a pair of Ragtime concerts in 2006), America’s folk music was the focus of Carl Sandburg and His Songbag and local composers have been major features, including two commissioned works in 2005 and 2006 (by Charles Shadle and Graham Gordon Ramsay).
In March 2011 American Classics was the only organization to recognize the one hundredth anniversary of Berlin’s classic song Alexander’s Ragtime Band, with a gala concert on the song’s “birthday.” In 2012 American Classics saluted the one hundredth anniversary of Boston’s Fenway Park with Fabulous Fenway in March, and in April an octet of American Classics members sang the National Anthem at Fenway itself for the season’s second home game of the hundredth birthday season.
Bradford Conner, Benjamin Sears, Margaret Ulmer – Producing Directors