From early in his life Keith Baker was influenced by conductors who strived to create and sustain a “beautiful sound.”
As a child in Manhattan, Baker, now the artistic director of Bucks County’s Bristol Riverside Theater, accompanied his mother, Leigh Harlowe, a soprano, to rehearsals and performances at the Metropolitan Opera. Bringing children to work, when possible, was his mother’s era’s form of day care, Baker quips.
“My mother had a magnificent voice,” says Baker by telephone during a rehearsal break. “I am lucky to have one recording of her singing on a cassette.
“I would watch my mother and the other singers work with conductors. Whether they were from Europe or America, these maestros strived for one particular thing, the beautiful sound. They made an effort to encourage beautiful singing and the beautiful sound. Harmony and clarity had to be precise. Voices had to blend. Whether working with the chorus or the orchestra, the purpose was the same, to create splendid music that would resonate through the concert hall. This was at the old Met, not the current one at Lincoln Center. It was a time before amplification.
“In addition to the rehearsals and shows, musicians would get together to create music. Parties would include people performing. Even in such an informal setting, the emphasis was on achieving a gorgeous sound.
“I have been involved with music and around musicians my entire life, and I can’t settle for less than the beautiful. Call me old-fashioned, but when I direct or work with musicians, I think of how precise and demanding the music teachers and conductors at the Met were in my youth. I used that memory when I played the teacher in Jon Maran’s ‘Old Wicked Songs’ a few seasons ago. The upshot is I insist on the beautiful. I don’t like ‘ugly.’”
Baker, by age 17, was drawn more to the theater than to the concert hall, partly because he assessed he did not have the voice to be Luciano Pavarotti and partly because he enjoyed acting and exploring the various themes and ideas found in plays.
Studying acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse or with John Houseman at Juilliard, Baker found fulfillment, but he continued to play music — in bands or for his enjoyment.
Sixteen years ago the Bristol Riverside Theater took on a challenge of sorts. Baker and founding director Susan D. Atkinson wanted to find a way to keep entertaining audiences through the summer when most regional theaters take a hiatus.
“In considering what we might do,” Baker says, “we stuck by one rule. We mustn’t lose even one dollar. We could break even, but we could not lose any money.”
Baker devised what Bristol called at the time “musicales,” a summer series of concerts that were built around a specific composer or theme.
These shows proved popular and showed a profit. They continue today, but the word “musicale” has been sent to pasture. The three programs set for two weeks each in June, July, and August are now billed as the “Summer Music Fest” and will feature music by African-American composers, 1970s love songs, and Broadway classics.
“Don’t use that word ‘musicale,’ Baker says sternly but with a laugh. “It makes our marketing department cringe. Susan and I thought it indicated an old-fashioned, intimate tone to our programs, but the younger people on staff, and those marketers in particular, loathe the word, so we replaced it.
“The idea is the same no matter what we call the series. We concentrate on the popular songs from Broadway, the American Songbook, and from contemporary music that people know and want to hear. We can do anything from Victor Herbert to Stephen Sondheim, though I have to say our audience doesn’t have a great affinity for Sondheim, and we go into the pop repertoire with songs by Jim Croce and Randy Newman, as we will in the ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ program in July.”
Many elements of the Summer Music Fest are identical to the first musicales Baker staged. More importantly, the corps of musicians who performed in Baker’s initial shows returns year after year and forms the nucleus of Summer Fest’s ensemble this year.
Almost two decades of concerts, coming close to 50 in number, have taught Baker a lot about his audience. He says the Summer Fest crowd is pretty clear on what it wants and doesn’t want.
“It wants the familiar. It doesn’t want anything strange or too foreign. It’s not an audience that wants to hear or learn new songs. It’s a group that wants to hear songs it knows, songs the people like and start to sing along with in their heads.
“Each show contains about 25 songs, so I can add a novelty or introduce a tune somewhere in each program, but for the most part, the audience likes the tried-and-true, so that’s what we give them — but with great singers and musicians.
“You can’t go too far afield. I received bad reaction from a Duke Ellington show because people didn’t know his songs as well as they know George Gershwin’s or Cole Porter’s. We also got some testy feedback from a show that featured comic songs. By now we’ve learned to be creative and entertaining with songs the audience will recognize.
But that is hardly a burden. “The American Songbook is vast. It includes Broadway tunes, and when you add in Billy Joel or other favorite composers, there’s a lot of material from which to make a show.”
Baker — who chooses the themes, the music, and the band — says the Summer Music Fest has grown exponentially in popularity. Also growing is its stage presentation, with the band adding two pieces this year and Baker relinquishing some of his original role as keyboardist to another musician.
On board from the first Summer Fest production are guitarist Neil Nemetz, who recently brought depth and color to Mitch Leigh’s score in BRT’s “Man of La Mancha,” and Kathy Goff, whom Baker describes as a real theater percussionist, meaning she plays efficiently in many different styles and knows how to bring out the brightness in theater music. Violinist Claudia Pellegrini is now part of the ensemble. In addition to the piano, Baker and others play a small synthesizer. This year’s Summer Fest will feature six in the band and eight singers.
Programs begin Thursday, June 16, with “Bursting with Song,” a tribute to African-American composers featuring songs such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and “Accentuate the Positive.” From July 14 to 24 is “Love Will Keep Us Together,” in which the Captain and Tennille hit is joined by songs like “Time in a Bottle” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” “Broadway Gold,” from August 11 to 21 includes songs from “Oklahoma!,” “Hello Dolly!,” “West Side Story,” and “Babes in Arms.”
As Bristol Riverside audiences know, Baker has a knack for eliciting wonderful singing. He also knows when to take a calculated risk in choosing material. Amid the familiar tunes in “Bursting with Song,” he will include an a cappella version of “Black and Blue,” a haunting choral piece by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf.
Baker was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and says he still has a Southern core in spite of growing up in Manhattan — where he augmented his Juilliard acting classes with courses in arranging. Baker’s parents were separated, and he says he never had a close relationship with his father.
He is currently married to actress Jo Twiss, who often graces the Bristol stage. Twiss is also a registered nurse, though Baker says she is looking to spend less time in hospitals and more in the theater. Baker has a daughter, Rebecca, with whom, he says, his relationship has gotten closer in recent years. He has two grandsons, Ross and Ryan.
In addition to the Summer Music Fest, Bristol Riverside also features a Holiday Music Fest between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Summer Music Fest, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Opens Thursday, June 16, with “Bursting with Song,” running through Sunday, June 26. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 3 p.m., and Saturday and Sundays, 2 p.m. $10 to $40. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.