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Encore!

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tomorrow night, Barbra Streisand winds up what she says will be her final concert tour, following a pair of performances in Los Angeles and New York, two cities that have been pivotal in her career. Sun Music Critic Tim Smith hopes that this won't be the last time we hear her voice.

Dear Barbra Streisand:

After the roar made by 25,000 of the luckiest people in the world fades from your ears tomorrow night when you leave Madison Square Garden and put live concerts behind you forever, I hope you will be able to hear a little voice deep inside your conscience telling you that your singing career cannot - must not - be over.

As much as I wish you would not abandon the notion of concerts (I still relish the memory of your 1967 Central Park appearance), I have to accept your desire to depart the public scene now, with your vocal gifts wonderfully intact at age 58. Your oft-stated preference for movie-making is certainly understandable; you're less likely to get stage fright in that environment. The question now is not why you decided to terminate your intermittent concertizing, but what you are going to do out of the public eye.

No, I don't mean with your new husband.

I mean with the voice that first made you a sensation, and put you in the very small class of women who redefined the art of singing in the 20th century. Like fellow classmates Judy Garland and Maria Callas, you were blessed with an uncommonly penetrating, compelling timbre and a flair for molding a melodic line and conveying the meaning of words in such an inspired way that the results often became definitive.

But, unlike Judy and Maria, you have not fulfilled all of your potential as a vocal artist. And now that you don't ever have to worry about putting together a giant concert again, you have time to make amends.

Back in the early '80s, I interviewed mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, one of the most inspired and inspiring classical singers of our time. Her sound was, like yours, indelible. It could never be mistaken for anyone else's. And when her vocal cords touched an art song or an opera aria, magic happened. Her voice always went right into our hearts. We believed and felt everything she sang.

I asked Dame Janet, who has since retired, what motivated her to sing. She said she felt that she had been given a gift, so it was her obligation to give something back. I was struck by the sincerity of her tone as she said that, and I've been thinking about her comment ever since you announced your farewell to live concerts. Please forgive the impertinence, but I don't think you've returned as much of your gift as you could have - and should have.

Your retirement from the stage need not prevent you from correcting the situation, though. You can spend more time in the seclusion of the recording studio, like pianist Glenn Gould, another brilliant artist who abandoned concert life. After all, the studio is where you have done all your truly timeless work. Sadly, it's also where you've done some of your most forgettable. Are you really proud of "Guava Jelly" and those disco banalities with Donna Summer and Barry Gibb?

It's the same with your movie career. You squandered precious months on such twaddle as "The Main Event" and "For Pete's Sake," not to mention the embarrassing "A Star is Born," while turning down opportunities to work with such challenging directors as Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell. It's so hard to understand the artistic judgment behind such decisions.

But it's especially hard to understand what you were thinking when you embraced sub-standard musical material starting in the 1970s, when your taste had been so impeccable in the 1960s. Stylistically, you seemed prone to miscalculation, too, in a way that the "singing actress" of "A Sleepin' Bee" or "Who Will Buy" or "Bewitched" or "Yesterdays" or "More Than You Know" would never have done. You borrowed one mannerism after another from rock and soul practitioners, especially the technique of spreading out a single vowel over several wailing notes, even though you never did so convincingly. Of course, an artist should stretch, explore, experiment. But, most of the time, your embrace of the contemporary had a strangely forced feeling, starting with your ersatz-Leslie Gore flop "Our Corner of the Night." You became less and less Barbra Streisand, more and more an unnatural, trying-too-hard singer. Listen to some of Ella Fitzgerald's unfortunate attempts at rock stuff; I'm sure you'll hear the similarity.

Sure, you earned lots of new fans when you went in more mainstream pop, earned lots of money, too. No one can argue with the success. Odd, though - the wealthier you became, the more plebian your musical tastes. Popularity has never guaranteed quality in any field.

While you step out of the spotlights for good, please try to look objectively at your work. I think you will find it's rather like searching through oysters; you have to do a lot of looking during the last three decades before finding the pearl - the rare combination of truly distinguished performance and truly distinguished material. That combination was your trademark in the 1960s.

Consider your most recent all-new album, last year's "A Love Like Ours." It is exquisitely vocalized. The voice, now deeper, darker, warmer, never fails to reach out and grab us. But only one selection really deserves all that talent and soars into the realm of Streisand classics - Gershwin's "Isn't It a Pity." That performance is so incredibly perfect in phrasing, in tone, in technique; isn't it a pity that you surrounded it with so many second-drawer songs? (This doesn't apply to your heartfelt re-make of "The Music That Makes Me Dance" from "Funny Girl.")

Well, now you can make up for all the possibilities you've missed. Devote yourself to creating a second recorded legacy to rival the one you left us with those first glorious treasures, from "The Barbra Streisand Album" to "Simply Streisand." Take the time to immerse yourself in the richest corners of popular music.

Why not a Streisand version of Ella's famous songbooks of great American composers? You have dabbled in Gershwin off and on, including a deliciously improbable "I Got Plenty of Nuttin' " and a melting "Someone to Watch Over Me." But there's so much more you haven't tried, and, as that recent "Isn't It A Pity" so dramatically proves, you've got what it takes to do Gershwin justice.

Likewise for Rodgers and Hart, as you're version of "Where's That Rainbow" proved so long ago. And Jerome Kern, as your exquisite "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" on "The Broadway Album" made plain. And remember how deliciously you served up Cole Porter's "You're the Top" and "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking?" A lot more Porter beckons. Putting together extensive "Streisand Songbooks" would be such a wondrous way to return the gift you were given.

As for more recent composers, everyone knows that you alone can make Andrew Lloyd Webber's derivative, simplistic ditties sound divinely inspired, but you ought to spend more time with Stephen Sondheim instead. Every time you've sampled his output, you've struck gold. So why not a full-fledged anthology? I get shivers just imagining what you could do with "I Remember."

And - don't laugh - you should consider trying a classical album again. Your first, much-reviled one contained some very promising stuff, promising enough to get Glenn Gould's attention and his offer to help you with another. Too bad you never took him up on it. I'm convinced you'd be an incisive interpreter of Schumann's "A Woman's Life and Loves," for example. Go back and watch your 1967 TV special, "The Belle of 14th Street." You may find the inspiration and confidence to try more serious music again.

Once you do return to the studio - I'm assuming that you will gladly do your duty - don't feel you have to bring a hundred or more musicians with you. Or synthesizers. Or those infernal wind chimes that have been so abused in your two most recent albums, especially 1997's overproduced "Higher Ground." Remember what a sublime effect you achieved with only a piano in "If I Love Again" and "A Child Is Born," or just a piano and cello in "One Kiss." Less really can be more.

The critical thing is that you must keep singing, and must rev up the artistic senses that once had you reviving the best of vintage popular songs and reveling in the most sophisticated Broadway scores (who can forget the way you excavated the melodic gold mine in "The Yearling?")

Your concert days may be behind you, along with a lot of priceless recordings, but your best work may well be ahead of you. No, you don't owe us anything. You owe it to yourself. And to the source of your incomparable, transcendent talent.

Yours sincerely,

A most devoted fan,

Tim Smith

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