A weekend spent with American voices, for better or worse

Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles performing at the Kennedy Center, while NSO principal pops conductor Steven Reineke looks on
(Scott Suchman)

Now that some more pressing things are out of the way (not pressing to you, of course, just my editors), I thought I would share a few thoughts about last weekend, which I spent largely listening to the sound of singing. It was an interesting, if not always satisfying, experience.

I have already reported on the new musical "If/Then," which, say what you will about the convoluted plot and so-so music, sure generated some robust, stylish vocalism from Idina Menzel and just about everyone else in the cast.


Also going on in Washington over the weekend was American Voices, a Kennedy Center festival celebrating the art of singing. In addition to master classes and discussions, there was a big concert Saturday night hosted by soprano Renee Fleming and featuring a starry cross-section of talent. (PBS was on hand to film a lot of the festival for a future program.)

The first indication that all was not quite right with the concert came at the start, after the National Symphony Orchestra finished tuning and conductor Steven Reineke patiently waited.


Finally, out came Alison Krauss holding a folder with sheet music. She proceeded to keep her eyes on the score as she sang a verse of one of the most endearing American hymns, "How Can I Keep From Singing," then just strode back off.

Somehow, what should have been a perfect, magical opener became a dud. Other miscalculations followed, including a plethora of selections on the slow side.

There was an awkward close to the first half of the program. Bass-baritone Eric Owens walked out with gospel singer Kim Burrell; he sang "Deep River" a cappella (very nicely), while she stood silently next to him; then she delivered "A Change Is Gonna Come" (very nicely), while he stood silently next to her. What kind of big-time presentation is that?

Even worse was the finale, when all the soloists lined up, microphones in hand, to deliver Beyonce's gooey "I Was Here." But several of the singers didn't seem to know the tune or the words, and a few looked like they weren't even trying to chime in. Strange.

Such things kept the evening from truly soaring, and hardly showed off the Kennedy Center at its best.

Still, there were rewards. Fleming was, as you would expect, a terrific host -- down-to earth, enthusiastic, charming. And it was great to hear her velvety soprano in "Danny Boy," even if the arrangement encouraged her to add way too much Puccini-ish emotion to a song that is far more affecting when sung subtly.

Krauss delivered "Ghost in This House" with keen expressive nuance. Sara Bareilles dug into "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and unleashed its dark energy. Norm Lewis ("Make Them Hear You" from "Ragtime) and Dianne Reeves ("When You Know") made their mark. Sutton Foster dashed through "Anything Goes" with glee, if not clarity of articulation.

Josh Groban poured out his familiar, smooth tone, if little distinctive phrasing, in "Smile." Owens sculpted an aria from "I vespri Siciliani" eloquently (the was hardly the most interesting example of the operatic genre that could have been chosen for the program).

Ben Folds got the most time onstage and seemed to relish it. His new song "I'm Not the Man" had a certain moody appeal, and, with the assistance of Bareilles, effectively drew the audience into a potent performance of "Not the Same."

Nearly stealing the show were two young artists -- participants in the festival's master classes -- who never expected to be included. Filling in on short notice for an indisposed Kurt Elling, singer and bassist Kate Davis delivered a sensational, airy version of "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key." And Michael Mayo revealed admirable jazz chops in "All of Me."

Throughout the concert, Reineke provided supple, attentive partnering to the singers and drew vibrant playing from the NSO.

The other vocal experience I had over the weekend was Baltimore Concert Opera's presentation of Bellini's "Norma" Friday night -- just the first act. That was enough to satisfy my curiosity about how Francesca Mondanaro would handle the title role, one of the most demanding in the bel canto repertoire.


This soprano is quite an interesting singer. Hers is a large, unwieldy voice, fueled with a lot of temperament. In the right repertoire and, especially, in the right space, she can be compelling. Neither was the case here.

There just wasn't enough "bel" in this "canto." Only about 30 percent of Mondanaro's notes had warmth. The rest emerged harshly and were not always steadily supported. Coloratura could be sketchy. Passion and commitment were certainly in evidence, but that couldn't erase the vocal flaws.

(It didn't help that the ballroom of the Engineers Club is an intimate place, its acoustics dry and unforgiving. Mondanaro will sing Abigaille in Lyric Opera Baltimore's staging of "Nabucco" at the Modell/Lyric in May, an assignment and a venue that ought to prove a better match.)

Jennifer Holbrook was much closer to the mark as Adalgisa, offering an even tone and sensitive phrasing. Jason Wickson strained hard as Pollione. Nothing particularly striking emerged from the rest of the singers or the conductor (Tyson Deaton), another reason why I slipped out early.

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