American music, such as it is, is so diverse and far-reaching that there are rarely opportunities for artists representing one genre of music to engage with their fellow artists in other genres and share a commonality – the love of music and how it can be leveraged to tell a story with conviction. Thanks to host Renée Fleming and the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, artists and music lovers alike had a chance to experience firsthand what can happen when well-established barriers are broken down in one swoop.
Musical theatre, pop/rock, jazz, gospel, classical music, and opera were all well-represented this weekend at the Kennedy Center in the unique American Voices festival. While the centerpiece of the weekend was an all-star concert featuring known talents from all of these genres backed by impressive the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), the festival also provided an opportunity for the artists to share their expertise with emerging artists in a series of master sessions, and allow music professionals to discuss some key issues in the business and beyond.
It’s an incredible thing, really – and rather unprecedented. As a musical theatre lover who happens to also love many kinds of good music, it was really a gift to witness it all – particularly the concert.
I mean, when is the last time you’ve seen the incomparable singer-songwriters Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds, classical/pop singer Josh Groban, and Broadway luminaries Sutton Foster and Norm Lewis in the same room as jazz icon Dianne Reeves, opera star Renée Fleming, classical bass-baritone Eric Owens, and gospel diva Kim Burrell? Add in country artist Alison Krauss and two up-and-coming jazz musicians (Michael Mayo and Kate Davis) stepping in for an ailing Kurt Elling and you have something pretty special.
From the moment the understated and ethereal Alison Krauss set the joyous tone for the evening with a few bars of the hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing?,” it was clear the concert would be a celebration of music.
What followed was certainly that – a joyous lovefest. Even if one could quibble that the structure Fleming and company employed to present the music didn’t necessarily result in a free-flowing, cohesive music event, it was definitely one to remember.
To be sure, one has to appreciate the task at hand was a difficult one: how to logically introduce and incorporate a variety of music stylings in one evening, make it all seem seamless yet celebratory, and give every artist time in the spotlight is certainly something of a conundrum.
Therefore, thanks to the vocal starpower and the camaraderie on display, it was easy to forget that some of Ms. Fleming’s commentary intended to transition from one genre to another seemed to be shoe-horned in to provide some semblance of structure. Likewise, the structure did not afford many opportunities for the talent to interact with their peers until a finale, an ensemble song – Diane Warren’s “I Was Here.” An unfortunate decision to employ staging that was more of the ‘sing your song and get off quick’ variety left little time for anyone to revel in each moment that would never be created again. Yet, nearly all of this could be forgiven because the performances were that sensational.
Josh Groban lent his pure voice to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and made clear why he’s renowned for his vocal technique, but also the emotional warmth he brings to even the most familiar of songs.
Two-time Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster’s signature Broadway belt was on full display as she returned to the character of Reno Sweeney, taking on the title song of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Her sassy yet authentic delivery proved yet again why she’s one of the musical theatre greats of our day. Norm Lewis, as usual, did not disappoint as he gave voice to one of Ahrens and Flaherty’s best tunes, “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime. While this pleading song may have been somewhat of a predictable choice, one has to appreciate Mr. Lewis’ rich voice and charisma that never gets old.
Alison Krauss may not have had the bombastic vocals of the Broadway stage performers, but her rendition of Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost in the House” provided a bit of masterclass in storytelling. Her haunting, evocative, and unique voice is also practically unparalleled.
While Eric Owens did not have quite the lyrical connection that Krauss did, one can’t help but appreciate his deep and technically proficient voice on two different kinds of numbers, the spiritual “Deep River” and Verdi’s “O tu Palermo.” His powerful voice didn’t exactly completely fill the cavernous Kennedy Center Concert Hall in a way I might have liked, but it’s always a joy to hear a voice without amplification – a rarity outside of the opera world.
Singers Dianne Reeves and Kim Burrell also stood out for their precise vocals. The vocal control that Reeves had on Franzel and Kimmel’s “When You Know” was simply astounding and even if one found the lyrics of the song slightly mundane and insipid (as I did), it’s hard not to admire her incredible technical skill. Burrell, a stalwart on the gospel scene perfectly blended convicted emotion and full-bodied vocals as she tackled the message-oriented and meaningful “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Bassist/singer Kate Davis and Michael Mayo also made an impression, showing absolutely no nerves over moving from the master session stage to the concert stage when Mr. Elling fell ill. Ms. Davis made the most of the once-in-a-lifetime, unexpected opportunity and charmed her way through the standard “I’m Going to Lock Away My Heart and Throw Away the Key.” She possesses an inviting voice with a unique vocal quality, but when this talent was combined with her skillful playing of the bass, she showed she’s someone truly special with possible staying power in the music world. Mayo, likewise, scatted like the best of them on “All of Me” and his smooth vocals were akin to ear candy.
However, it was Renée Fleming, Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles that made me take complete notice and left me pretty much in awe of not only their skill, but creativity.
Renée Fleming is one of those rare opera singers who I believe when she’s singing the lyrics. There’s an intention behind every word she sings and she makes abundantly clear that the words to a song don’t exist only to give her an opportunity to share what she can do with her well-honed voice. While the traditional song “Danny Boy” isn’t exactly Mozart or Verdi, I do have to say that I’ve never quite heard it done as Fleming performed it here. Her highly individualized rendition allowed her extraordinary instrument to be on full display. Yet, the pure joy and lyric-driven emotion she shared was something even more inspiring to behold. It was polished and powerful, but also authentic and purpose-driven.
Ben Folds, a unique ‘musician’s musician,’ gets notice for the risk he took at this concert. Premiering his new song “I’m Not the Man” with backup vocals from Sara Bareilles and his talented young daughter Gracie Folds, he took a chance that paid off. The accomplished writer, pianist, and singer has the kind of raw talent and ability to command an audience that would pretty much make any performer green with envy. The organic way in which the performance of this song unfolded – as well as a later self-penned duet with Sara Bareilles (“Not the Same”) which featured a bit of an audience sing-along – was something of a wonder.
Like Bareilles, he gets enormous kudos for sharing the joy of storytelling through music in an unadulterated way and not letting the intricacies of the music get too much in the way of that.
The highlight of the night, however, goes to Sara Bareilles’ individual performance of Elton John’s classic “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” A talented arranger, she repurposed the song (with Berens) to sound like something entirely new while playing homage to the intent of the original. This selection is certainly not a new one for the accomplished Bareilles – she’s played it in concerts this year along with her massive catalog of original music. Yet, at the Kennedy Center, it appeared as if she was playing it for the first time – right here, right now, in one specific moment – and was clearly elated at having the chance to do so.
Though Sara’s likely most accustomed to performing with a small band or solo, she transitioned to performing the song with Steven Reineke’s flawless NSO with great ease and together they created a special moment that will be remembered. Bareilles’ passionate piano playing, agile voice, and adeptness with dynamics left me breathless in the quiet moments of the song as well as the climactic points. Magical is the only way to describe her performance, which was filled with authentic, raw, and real emotions.
Ms. Bareilles absolutely deserves a place among the lineup of the best, true talents American music has to offer and this performance in part validated that point. One can only hope the Kennedy Center takes notice and provides an opportunity for her to share her other unique gift – singing her own original songs – with its savvy audiences.
This one-night-only concert took place on Saturday, November 23, 2013 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.