Four Tops and Temptations at Wolf Trap
It was "The Night of the Singing Boomer" at Wolf Trap Tuesday, as thousands of folks who grew up listening to Motown sounds shared harmonies with the Four Tops and the Temptations. Too bad the music often gave way to a lot of mindless chatter onstage, enough to suggest that the Temptations, at least, have spent far too much time entertaining tourists in Las Vegas.
The Four Tops opened with that interminable oldie "MacArthur Park," a ballad that not even the group's great lead singer, Levi Stubbs, could fully redeem. Mercifully, Stubbs soon moved on to the quartet's impressive hit list, robustly reviving "Bernadette," "Walk Away Renee" and other favorites with the rest of the group (including newcomer Theo Peoples) and a crowd that seemed to know the words to nearly every song by heart.
Still powerfully soulful after all these years, Stubbs took a little time out to pay swinging tribute to Frank Sinatra with "I've Got You Under My Skin," briefly casting his imposing baritone in a different light. Yet he was at his best performing old songs by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland that instantly evoked Motown's glory days. Former mayor Marion Barry, greeted by a mixture of cheers and boos, briefly joined the group onstage during the rousing finale, "I Can't Help Myself."
The Temptations were far less focused and entertaining, despite some tight choreography and lively versions of "Just My Imagination," "I Wish It Would Rain" and "My Girl." While Otis Williams is the only surviving member of the original group, the current edition is solid, distinguished in large part by Ron Tyson's silky tenor.
Unfortunately, the group kept halting its hit parade to indulge in long-winded plugs and patter that left some audience members exasperated. "Get on with it," shouted one fan who had had his fill.
Jamiroquai at 9:30
At the 9:30 club Monday night, Jamiroquai front man Jason Kay complained good-naturedly about the trouble his band has getting radio airplay in the United States. His explanation: "Everybody thinks I want to be Stevie Wonder."
Sometimes Kay does seem to want to be Stevie Wonder. Jamiroquai's music is all '70s funk--light dance stuff that often sounds like it could have been pulled straight off an old disco album. But the band has built a loyal fan base without radio support, judging from the large crowd of club kids outside the 9:30 hoping to score tickets to the sold-out show.
Wearing one of his trademark big, fuzzy hats, Kay energetically hopped across the stage as he worked through a set of tunes old and new, pointing out each of the tracks from the band's new album, "Synkronized," as they came up and lightly kvetching at one point about the lousy placement a song Jamiroquai recorded for the "Godzilla" soundtrack got in the movie.
Toward the end of the set, the group worked in a perfect cover of the Rolling Stones' disco-crossover hit "Miss You"--evidence that, in addition to the Stevie Wonder thing, Kay and his band can do a decent Stones impersonation as well.
Robert White at U-Md.
The center of tenor Robert White's repertory consists of marvelous songs that slid out of fashion and earshot so long ago they sound almost new today: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Danny Boy." At its best his voice has a sweet fragility, a silvery purr that gets inside a song and opens it up without a trace of artifice or overt interpretation. His appearance Tuesday evening as part of the University of Maryland's International Vocal Arts Festival may have been instructive for young singers, as White's voice is shot through with flaws.
Those imperfections--of the voice itself, not the artistry behind it--were manifest in a group of modestly difficult Schubert and Schumann lieder. White dispatched them professionally and with crystalline diction, but at increased volume notes began to fragment and lose shape, phrasing sagged, coloration turned dry and reedy. White was visibly more relaxed in a set of brightly sung Poulenc songs, tossing off the oddly funny "Monsieur Sans-Souci" with aplomb, and hitting a stunning falsetto in "Bleuet." A clutch of songs by modern composers (Corigliano, Bolcom, Liebermann) and a group of show tunes were studded with beautiful effects, but a tightening in the top register was not among them, nor were head tones that were more crooned than tightly focused.
Four nostalgic ballads, including "Danny Boy," exquisitely reanimated the spirit of a warmer era. Pianist Brian Farrell accompanied unobtrusively and well.
Benita Valente at U-Md.
It's no secret that soprano Benita Valente has made a distinguished mark on the musical world, her career spanning all the realms of performance--opera, lied, oratorio and chamber music. With Cynthia Raim, her responsive pianist, Valente appeared in recital Monday at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre as part of the university's ongoing Marian Anderson International Vocal Arts Competition and Festival.
In four songs of Richard Strauss, Valente re-created that uncommon fusion of stylistic moods that only this composer (and Mahler) could envision: the pairing of the lied's intimate inflections of tone and other expressive means with those exhilarating volleys of emotion that charge Strauss's orchestral tone poems. The soprano mastered this double assignment with near-perfect intonation, unfailing agility between registers and a wide range of dynamic nuances. For the nine lieder of Hugo Wolf that followed the Strauss, she packed just the right punch of wit and psychological innuendo.
The recital's first half was somewhat disappointing. In lieder of Robert Schumann and William Bolcom's song cycle "Briefly It Enters," Valente approached every song with ultra-cautious delicacy and a lack of audible inflections of tone. In addition, Bolcom's poet (the late Jane Kenyon) was not identified and the program provided no text. Ironically, the piano accompaniment, played by Raim with imagination and thoughtfulness, contained more interesting material than the vocal part.
Martina Arroyo at U-Md.
At age 63, 41 years after her debut, Martina Arroyo must be considered not only a great soprano but also something of a natural phenomenon. She retired from opera 10 years ago but still gives occasional recitals, as she did Wednesday night at the University of Maryland's Marian Anderson International Vocal Arts Competition and Festival. The performance was not flawless--time does take its toll--but, considering the circumstances, it was spectacularly impressive.
Arroyo's versatility may be judged from the fact that she has sung with distinction both the role of Turandot in the Puccini opera and the sharply contrasting role of Liu: ice-cold power on the one hand, warmth and vulnerability on the other. But her most glorious moments have come in heroic roles: Mozart's Donna Anna, Bellini's Norma and, above all, Verdi's great heroines.
Her voice still has an uncommon power and tonal richness, and she is still capable of great warmth and subtlety. Her control of intonation and dynamics was variable Wednesday night, particularly when she was warming up with 18th-century arias by Stradella, Gluck, Handel and Paisiello. She was stylistically impressive and improving control vocally in groups by Richard Strauss and Henri Duparc. But her real triumphs came after intermission, when the passage of time lost its meaning.
In Manuel de Falla's "Seven Popular Spanish Songs," the style was exactly right: gutsy, vibrant, emotionally intense, and the voice took on a sense of unlimited power. Arroyo was slightly less at home in the lullaby, but only when judged by her performance in the more muscular numbers.
She surpassed the Falla group in four spirituals that ended the program. For encores, she sang "Little David, play on your harp" and then repeated "Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho," which had been on the program, sounding even better the second time around. I suspect that if she had restarted the whole program with Stradella's "Per Pieta," it would have shown enormous improvement.
Pianist Jeffrey Peterson was not merely an accompanist but a flawless partner.