Monday, December 19, 2011

Hugo--a great film for certain people of all ages

Few read reviews to find out whether the reviewer liked the film. They want to know whether THEY will like the film--to decide whether to see the movie or not, and whether to see it in the theater or wait and see the DVD (or the download). That's the task I'll take on here.

As the Rottentomato website has already shown (it assembles and correlates scads of reviews from the press and the web, along with reader responses), the critics adore this film, the audience somewhat less so.

Part of this has to do with managing expectations. The marketing presents Hugo as an Avatar-ish 3D fantasy with a C3P0 (StarWars)-type flying robot. this is actively misleading, though that's not the director's fault.

What Hugo is, is a fable--not a fantasy--that's part tween adventure and part infomercial for the preservation and viewing of old silent movies. Most importantly--and this is a point that hasn't been made by most reviewers here and elsewhere--it's a film about ex-magician/early filmmaker Georges Meliés that Scorsese made, to a degree, IN THE STYLE of a Georges Meliés movie. That's part of the homage.

Thus "Hugo" contains a lot of adventurous running-around, a brilliant exploitation of the best 3D filmmaking technology extant, and a leavening of slapstick elements--particularly from the surprisingly restrained Sascha Baron Cohen.

It's a fable based on real events in the early history of movies. "Sleepless in Seattle" was a fable with no fantasy elements other than its happy-ending-inevitability, which you feel from beginning to end. That's the essence of a fable, not whether it has fantasy elements or not. A fable is a kind of ritual that reaffirms the tribe's values and faith in its vision of life.

Hugo reaffirms faith in goodness--that even in many apparently hard-hearted people there's an ember that can be fanned into life by the right person. The movie's vibe from its first seconds tells you that you are riding towards a happy ending.

Two Russian intellectuals that I saw the movie with hated that fact. They think a movie is unrealistic unless everyone's doomed, and if you'd grown up in the Soviet Union that was probably realistic. Especially since Soviet-era fable-movies did guarantee a happy ending--"happy" as defined by Soviet ideology at least. So for my friends. fables aren't just false, but evil State Propaganda. And a lot of Americans who fancy themselves intellectual have a similarly jaundiced perspective about Hollywood's addiction to guaranteed by hook or by crook happy endings.

I think this issue stems from not understanding the ritual validity of fable. I love realistic movies without this guarantee of happy outcomes, but I also love a good fable. I'm certain of my spouse's love for me and of my love for her. I'm certain of our relationship with our closest friends, as they are of us reciprocally. I'm certain of the law-abidingness of my society (especially compared to the third-world countries we've traveled in). Predictable good outcomes are, within reasonable constraints, reasonable to believe in, in many ways.

So "Hugo"'s ultimate predictability is a valid artistic choice. It's not a spoiler to say this because you know it from the start and you should know so you don't confuse this with a Sundance-type art film where everyone is confused and faces an uncertain future, usually alone. I apologize for "Hugo" not being a slit-your-wristsathon. I also like such films, and they usually set your expectations from the start as well, for that matter.

So who will enjoy "Hugo" ?
1. Bright tweens. It stars a pair of bright tweens, so this is a natural. Many younger kids will like it as well--it's visually a treat, and it is based on a kids' story. But duller/much younger/Disneyfied kids who want nonstop action and/or the relentless cheerful action of a Disney film will probably find their attention wandering in places.

2. Everyone who's interested in the history of filmmaking--particularly right at the beginning.

3. Everyone who's interested in modern filmmaking. This does represent the absolute state of the art in 3D cinematography--where its 3Dness is integral and almost taken for granted, not tacked on, not poke-you-in-the-eye, not several layers of 2D images.

4. Everyone who's interested in good fable direction/screenwriting/acting. This is not to say anyone involved in this project can't do naturalistic films or fantasy films, or, in the case of Chloe Grace Moretz, naturalistic fantasy films ("Let me in"). So no negatives are proven here. That said, I believe the casting was spot on for the major and minor roles. This is one area where Scorsese didn't copy the stagy mugging of Meliés' films (except during re recreations of those films). The large, intent close-ups of the major characters really exposed their acting chops, and all came through. The boy, who I'd never seen before, kept it subtle, as well as the other juvenile character, Isabelle (played by Moretz). The young actors in many youth-oriented films tend to mug--again, Disney movie style--and kids who expect that need to be prepped by their parents to look for more lifelike acting here.

Who won't love it?

1. It's not a Selena Gomez/Demi Lovato/Disney vehicle. It's nothing like Lindsay Lohan's wonderful "Parent Trap," one of the best of the normal good-quality kids' film. It too is a fable, but it isn't overlaid with all the stuff about film history and suchlike. "Hugo"'s ideal kid audience is going to be like Isabelle in the move--sweet, bookish, curious, and not locked into peer culture as the source of everything that could possibly be of interest to one.

2. People who don't like the fable genre. The film embeds pretty naturalistic performances and note-perfect sets showing a Paris train station circa 1931, where most of the action takes place within a non-naturalistic film fable. There are lots of non-fable films. See one of those unless you really do want to see state of the art 3D cinematography and want to ratchet up your suspension of disbelief in order to watch this.

3. People with zero interest in film history. This is where a lot of movie critics err. Of course nearly all of them are fascinated by early film history. But this film verges on being a high quality 2 hour infomercial for film preservation, and you know, reading this, whether such prolonged self-regard on the part of the filmmaker towards his medium will fascinate or annoy you.

4. Adults who don't like films starring children. I detect this bias in people who criticize the performances of "Hugo"'s two junior leads, who are both exemplary. Also, I hadn't seen the boy before, but I have seen Moretz costarring in the grim, critically acclaimed "Let Me In," in which she portrays--with almost no dialogue and almost no special effects--a bloodthirsty (literally) yet profoundly conflicted child vampire, and in which those averse to sunny endings will get their wishes more than satisfied. And in which her appearance and performance have been compared favorably to a very young Ingrid Bergman. That is, she has gravitas. Of people in her age bracket, the only other actor I can think of who has that is Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit).

My point here is that Moretz's acting chops are now an established fact. She has a far less complex character to portray in "Hugo," yet even in Isabelle's wide-eyed pre-ingenue role she infuses her character with a kind of luminosity that holds its own even when she's sharing the screen with great adult actors like Ben Kingsley.

5. Adults who only want to see heavily plot-driven films. It's not like "Hugo" is one of those kaleidoscopic non-narrative films. It tells a story, to be sure. But besides the child-centered narrative there's a biopic about Georges Meliés (and his wife) here, told in flashback, along with excursions into film history. Some people will find that as rich as a multicourse meal; others will be annoyed by "Hugo" not being propelled by a singular narrative drive. Such people will sit there saying "All right, Scorsese--get to the point!"

6. Those who are really reluctant to pay to see the film in a theater, even if they're eager to see it on DVD. I agree with this feeling nearly all of the time. However, some films are so visually huge--and, especially, if they're 3D and do that well--you need to bite the bullet and see it in a theater, if only to compare what it's like in a theater in 3D with what it's like on your flat screen TV at home in 2D. Hey, you can always see it in a bargain matinee, as we did. But we'll probably get the DVD when it comes out as well, because it both makes and recalls film history.

Monday, July 18, 2011

USA's crime dramas play it safe on abortion

My spouse and I like "In plain sight." The protagonist is a tough-as-nails woman in her 40s who's a federal marshal in the witness protection program. People swear in the show, and many of the witnesses being protected are lowlife scum. So the Disney Channel USA ain't. Nor is "In plain sight" an outlier in the USA group of popular dramas-with-a-splash of humor/quirkiness.

So recently the heroine of "In plain sight" got pregnant after a one night stand. Chances of a future with the knocker-upper: nil. She's in Albuquerque New Mexico BTW. Oh, and the heroine appears to be pugnaciously unreligious. She does not and does not appear to ever have had a stable love life, nor is one in the offing. Recently she and a boyfriend broke up, with it seeming like she just couldn't handle marriage commitments.

Now in real life a woman like that in that situation would get an abortion in all likelihood. She might have the child and put it up for adoption. She even might raise the child as a single mother. But the 80% probability is abortion--especially given the risk of severe birth defects in a relatively late-in-life pregnancy.

But in the TV show abortion never came up, never was mentioned, never was rejected. It was as if there was no such thing as abortion--that if you're pregnant you WILL have the baby. The absolute only decision considered on "In plain sight" was whether to raise the child or give it up for adoption.

This is fundamentally dishonest. I'm not arguing that the screenwriters should have had her get an abortion. I'm not arguing for or against abortion. I'm arguing that in a show that purports to be gritty, realistic, confronting all sorts of gutwrenching issues, the fact that abortion was never so much as mentioned, when a majority of Americans approve of abortion under varying restrictions in poll after poll, just shows how terrified Hollywood is of the far Right.

It's ironic that the far Right continually fulminates about Hollywood being a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah even as Hollywood actually tiptoes about the far Right's most hot-button issue.

Name me one scripted TV show in recent years where abortion was even considered, much less done.

I'm not including Lifetime Channel weepers where the lady gets an abortion and is Ruined by her Sinful Choice. Just regular channels that show regular scripted dramas.

Homosexuality is now presented as perfectly normal, as in "Modern Family." But abortion appears to be the Mount Everest of challenges for Hollywood.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review of "Ombra mai fu" MP3 by Jackie Evancho

For me, the first time I heard Jacqueline Marie Evancho sing was like my first scuba dive in Indonesia.

Before I heard Ms. Evancho, I’d heard thousands upon thousands of singers, singing everything from opera arias to Tahitian war chants to headbanging rock & roll to Jazz standards to avant-garde music that didn’t even have a melody to bluegrass to country to Black gospel to Argentine tango to rap to everything you see on MTV today to…well, you get the picture. I’ve been around, musically speaking.

Likewise with scuba diving. Before Indonesia I’d gone on hundreds of dives around California, Canada, the Sea of Cortez, the Caribbean, Hawaii.

But all this experience didn’t fully prepare me for Indonesia. On our first dive there, near Bali, I backrolled out of the boat, waited for my wife to join me, and then we descended into a coral reef universe with so many—and so many kinds of—fish, coral, critters, in all the colors of the rainbow and more—that I was overwhelmed. And even now, 12 years after that first dive, I’m still overwhelmed by diving there.

Same goes for Jackie Evancho. For me, as a veteran diver and veteran music lover, she is my Indonesian coral reef—a neverending source of awe and profound joy.

In this review, I’ll explain why many people are entranced by Ms. Evancho—both as a performer and as a human being; why some others are not; how to listen to her singing; what her performance of this particular song means; and what this song means as a guide to whether you should buy the album it’s part of.

Ms. Evancho defines herself as a “classical crossover” singer. Other CC singers include Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, and Sarah Brightman. CC performers choose music from the worlds of pop, classical, folk and other genres, but always sing it a “classical” manner. Not operatic—classical. There’s a big difference.

Opera singers are trained to make themselves heard over a pit orchestra, all the way to the folks in the nosebleed seats. The techniques needed to do so give their voices a sort of trumpet-like quality that opera lovers love. I love it myself, but that’s not what Ms. Evancho sounds like even when she’s singing opera arias. She always performs with a microphone, enabling her to sing with a more intimate kind of sound. I love that too.

Which is part of why those who are entranced by her singing get drawn to it—she always sounds like she’s singing to you personally. This sense of emotional connection between you, the song, and her, is something many singers, however skilled, can’t seem to achieve. Often it’s because they embellish their singing so much it draws attention from the song to them—as if the lyrics are “Look at me singing! Aren’t I great?” Ms. Evancho never does that. She’s possessed by the music, not the other way around.

What she does do is draw people to her music—even people who don’t normally listen to classical crossover—even some who don’t even listen to music normally. Disabled vets have said that the only time they aren’t in pain is when they’re listening to her. Her effect can be that powerful. At the same time music lovers like me marvel at her richness of tone, perfect phrasing, refined use of portamento, subtle passagio, perfect vibrato, and effortless, soaring high notes.

Phrasing is the difference between a metronome and a storyteller. Frank Sinatra is a master of phrasing. He and Ms. Evancho never sacrifice the meaning of what they’re singing to a steady beat. They both use little hesitations and advances and fermatas (holding notes) to ensure that the poetry gets its voice.

Portamento is those little embellishments that are so annoying when American Idol singers overdo it, or when people without great pitch sense use it to pretend they’re being stylish when in fact they’re using it search around for their high notes.

Passagio is the shift between different kinds of voice as you go from low to high and back. Yodeling is exaggerated passagio, and charming then; it’s also used by great pop singers like Sarah McLachlan. But normally—and especially in classical music—you want it to be seamless, and that’s what Ms. Evancho delivers. She has some of the best passagio in the business.

Vibrato is that shimmering effect you hear as a voice ripples up and down quickly but not too quickly. Skilled string players achieve a similar effect on violins, cellos etc.—you see their fingers wiggling as they touch the strings on the instrument’s neck to get the effect.

And those high notes are what mark a great soprano. Never screechy, never sounding like they just stepped on a cat. Instead, the effect of looking up and seeing a seagull floating in the sky far above you.

But what really matters is that Ms. Evancho uses all these tools of her trade in the service of carrying you off with her into a soundscape that evokes our deepest feelings. As with all great performing artists, you don’t see the years of relentless work she’s poured into honing her craft. You just get the result.

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s an admirable human being as well—possessed of towering ambition and drive, yet at the same time devoted to family and friends, unfailingly thoughtful and polite in interviews, and a Humane Society spokesperson on behalf of decent treatment for animals. She believes she has a gift—and does she ever—but she also believes that such a gift carries responsibilities with it. She’s too grounded to play the diva and live in a bubble of sycophants.

Yet despite her talent and personal rectitude, she has detractors, some of whom felt the need to put their two cents’ worth in this review thread.

The detractors are easy to understand, and fall into several groups. But all of them suffer from being prisoners of their categories. That is, Ms. Evancho’s existence challenges the framework these people use to navigate their way through life. However, instead of changing their framework to accommodate her reality, they deny that she is who she is.

And who she is…is an interpretive genius. I’m not being hyperbolic. I founded the gifted student program at a public school I taught at a long time ago, and I’ve come to recognize genius when I see it. And I know that a lot of people can’t handle genius—they have to explain it away, attribute it to environment or training…anything to avoid the fact that we are not born the same.

Nor are geniuses. Her teachers say she’s intelligent, but she isn’t necessarily an actual genius at anything besides singing. That’s where she’s revealed it, and if you look at the YouTube videos of her earlier performances, you can see this at work even when she was just eight years old, singing “O mio Babbino caro” acapella in her living room.

Note that this is the first time I’ve referred to her age. She turned 11 in April. This leads many to categorize her as a child singer, or a child soprano.

She is not. She’s a vocalist who is a child, but she is not a child vocalist. This is not semantics. Her fans are not, by and large, fans of the category “child singers.” She hasn’t sounded like a child singing since about midway through her 10th year.

I’ve actually tried this on friends who haven’t heard of her. I’ll play an MP3 with no visuals and ask them to describe her. One said she sounded like the Greek chanteuse Nana Mouskouri when she was in her 30s. That’s a typical response.

Moreover, Ms. Evancho doesn’t consider herself a “child singer.” She sees herself as competing with her peers—Josh Groban and the like—and to be judged by the same standards you’d use to judge any other vocalist.

I said she had towering ambition. Lucky for her, she has talent to match.

One of the more amusing kinds of naysayers are the ones who say “she’s good…for a child. I’ll wait until she’s mature.” These are people who hear what they think—that is, the actual sound reaching their ears goes through a “category filter” so that what reaches their mind fits their biases.

The forums for Ms. Evancho include a fair number of musical sophisticates, and articles about her include a fair number of university voice teachers and the like who all agree that she has a sound and a talent that perhaps comes along once every 50 years or longer.

One of those giving her faint praise said one should look for perfection elsewhere. But then he made it clear that what he meant by “perfection” was “absence of errors.” This is a shallow definition. And it’s why beauty contest winners are so often kind of boring looking, while famous actresses almost never look like beauty contest winners. If you’re a man, who would you rather look at—Scarlett Johansson or Miss Nebraska? See?

That’s because real perfection has little to do with “absence of mistakes.” It has to do with the kind of magic—the passion, the intensity, the ability to connect with people—that only a few have. Ms. Evancho is one of them.

The most offensive of the naysayers are the ones who can’t believe that Ms. Evancho is doing what she wants to do. They accuse her parents of child abuse and her voice coaches of sacrificing her voice for quick fame. This would be serious if it had an iota of truth to it, but in fact her parents, if anything, are holding her back some, trying to give her some childhood in between performances. And her parents and voice coaches have mandated that she only do songs that won’t hurt her voice, and in a manner that won’t hurt it.

Such naysayers can’t grasp how different Ms. Evancho is from the 11 year olds they know. She is living the life she wants to live. Telling her to play with Barbies and sing “Mary had a little lamb”—now that would be child abuse where she’s concerned. And probably sexist to boot. Would they have said the same thing to Mozart when he was 11 and already composing symphonies and performing around Europe?

Another type of Jackie naysayer is people who identify with a type of music as representing them tribally—and feeling that liking anything else is tribal treason. For some who are young and see themselves as ‘not my parents,” if the singer isn’t on MTV they’re out. That was the problem with the critical reviewer here who said Ms. Evancho’s music was boring and all the same. What he was really saying was “if it’s not rock and roll fuggedaboudit.” Opera snobs may say the same. Some of them are aghast that she sings arias meant for men, or sings arias at all—or if she does, they want her to sing innocuous ones.

They don’t realize how serious an artist Ms. Evancho is. She does some light stuff—such as “When you wish upon a star” but even then she infuses it with a depth I certainly never knew was there to be mined.

In the case of this song, “Ombra mai fu,” you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want to know what the lyrics say and what it’s from. I have. But I don’t think that’s necessary. What’s important is right there—its gravitas, the way Ms. Evancho infuses is with such banked passion, proving once more that a whisper can be louder than a shout.

One faint-praising reviewer mentioned how Ms. Evancho couldn’t do the requisite trills yet, and faulted her for it. I’ve heard this aria many times, usually with the trills (Cecilia Bartoli is a great example of doing it the traditional way). But honestly I prefer the sparer, cleaner rendition Ms. Evancho gives it. I believe her version has the most oomph, actually.

Also, notice how the introduction goes on for quite a while, pauses, and then the singer has to hit her rather high starting note out of nowhere. And Ms. Evancho punches it, demonstrating her acute pitch sense and the rich, buttery tone she achieves even in the high soprano sky.

As for how to listen to her singing—I think you’ll gather by now it’s to listen to it as a voice without reference to the age of the person producing that voice.

And finally, as a guide to whether to buy the CD…this is the most classical-sounding cut on the CD. The most pop-sounding one is “Angel,” which you can hear at lower fidelity on YouTube. For this album I’d say “Angel” is more representative of the album overall than “Ombra mai fu.” Only a few of the songs, like the latter, are totally classical. Whereas more are drawn from the pop world—though she still performs them classically.

Thus if you listen to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” it’s a lot more country-sounding, full of yodeling passagios and if I recall right a pedal steel in the background. Ms. Evancho performs it in a more straight-ahead fashion. I’m not saying either is superior—for me they’re so distinct I ‘m glad both renditions exist.

Whereas with “Ombra mai fu” I now just want to listen to Jackie’s version, which for me has set the standard for this piece.

Ms. Evancho is, at the age of 11, one of world’s leading interpreters of classical crossover music. She doesn’t do jazz, or blues, or gospel, or Japanese folk songs for that matter. So it’s not like I don’t listen to anything else, because I love everything else. But for the kind of classical-sounding, quietly passionate, aspirational/yearning music Ms. Evancho specializes in at present—there’s none I’d rather listen to.

I’ve already pre-ordered the CD. I strongly recommend that you do so as well.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Text of interview of Jackie Evancho by Ms. Winfrey

I don't think this video of this interview is available online, thanks to Oprah's lawyers, but here's the text of Jackie with Oprah Winfrey, done on October 20, 2010.

Normally I'd edit out the verbal bobbles found in everyone's everyday speech--but I thought Jackie's  fans being who they are, they'd want a fairly exact transcript. So this is it:

[Aftter running clips of her America's Got Talent appearances and after her singing Pie Jesu live]
Oprah: So that was, uh, 10 year old Jackie Evancho with her powerhouse voice on America’s Got Talent. [to Jackie] You have had quite the summer young lady.
Jackie: Yeah, I have [giggles]
Oprah: So I had the pleasure of meeting Jackie at my house—she was kind enough to come to my house a couple of weeks ago, when all of my girls from South Africa were over, uh, looking at colleges, and you sang there, and at the end of, of singing, you said something that I was so impressed with you said you recognize that your voice was a gift from God.
Jackie: mmm-hm.
Oprah: Yeah. When did you know that?
Jackie: Um, well I I’ve always known that. And I say three prayers every night to make sure that God knows I thank him so much.
Oprah: Really.
Jackie: mmm-hm.
Oprah: That’s great.  
[Oprah takes Jackie’s hand briefly as audience applauds]
Keep that up, will ya? ‘Cause God loves appreciation.
Jackie: [giggles]
God loves appreciation so--When you were doing America’s Got Talent and the world was just getting to know you a little bit then, were you just out of your mind nervous?
How would you calm yourself every time?
Jackie: Well, I didn’t. The adrenaline helped me to realize that you’re on a big stage and you just have to deal with it. It just helped me to usually get this through.
Oprah: Really.
Jackie: hm! [nods]
Oprah: So Jackie has been on tour with America’s Got Talent for the past few weeks and. We caught up with her between shows back in her home town of Pittsburgh, hanging out with her two brothers and her little sister Rachel, who’s the cutest thing. Take a look.
[video of Jackie & family at home]
During video, Jackie says: It’s like you’re the only person in the whole world when you’re on stage. You’re standing there. This is the moment. And you’re gonna shine.
Mike: The moment Jackie steps off the stage, it’s back to Jackie being one of my four children. She’s not treated any differently…
Jackie: We have a lot of animals. We have about 28 pets.
When I’m at school, everything is really normal.
[in classroom of Mrs. Yannotti, Grade 5]
I love learning things—‘cause that’s fun.
Mrs. Yannott: Jackie’s a great student. She’s just what you see on TV. She’s always poised, but she’s just your average typical fun energetic fifth grader.
Callie [Jackie’s friend]: What I like about Jackie is that she’s very kind and sweet, and she’s nice to everyone.
Jackie: What makes me happiest is being with my family being able to play with my friends and being able to SING is really fun too.
[end of video]
Oprah: Wow. Great.
Jackie: [giggles]
Oprah: So how are all the other kids treating you after this big summer you had? How how was it going back in were you a little nervous going back into fifth grade?
Jackie: Definitely I was definitely really nervous. But. You know. I always say to myself “Jackie you’re just a normal kid you know?” So you just have to act like—you kn-- you just have to act like these COMMENTS are normal. ‘Cause you have to get used to it.
Oprah: Yeah. Unh-hunh.
Jackie: So um when I go to school--I’m always happy—because--it’s a normal kid thing.
Oprah: It’s a normal kid thing. And how’s fifth grade treating you?
Jackie: Oh it’s working out great. Ah…
Oprah: What do you love? What is what is your favorite subject?
Jackie: Writing. I love writing.
Oprah: Writing. So do you write, uh, like, stories, poems, what?
Jackie: I write almost everything actually Songs, poems, stories, and stories out of every genre too.
Oprah: “Out of very genre too.” But of course you do.
[audience laughs]
Is there any singer uh is there any singer you would you know you have a desire to, to,  like do a duet with, or sing with—is there somebody?
Jackie: There’s several actually. There’s Josh Groban,
[name tag appears onscreen saying:
World’s Youngest Opera Singer]
Oprah: Josh Groban, that’d be good...
Jackie: Charlotte Church,
Oprah: Charlotte Church
Jackie: Andrea Bocelli,
Oprah: Andrea Bocelli
Jackie: and--this girl isn’t really my kind of type of singing
Oprah: Yes?
Jackie: But it’s Lady Gaga.
Oprah: Lady Gaga.
[audience applauds as Jackie giggles]
Oprah: Different genre
Jackie: Exactly [giggles]
Oprah: Different genre...different genre but I I I’d like to see it for a day …just the, the two of you…yeah. But all of those’ll be great people to sing with. Jackie is releasing four songs on a new CD called “O holy night” with a bonus DVD too. And it is out November 16. I’m gonna go pre-order that. I’m not even gonna ask you to give me one for free. I’m gonna I’m really gonna pre-order that because yours is the voice I wanna hear in my house this Christmas.
Jackie: Thank you.
Oprah: Thank you so much. Jackie Evancho [applause]
Great. Wow. Thank you. We’ll be right back. [getting up to hug Jackie, who reciprocates] I’m gonna pre-order that CD.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pre-review of Jackie Evancho's "Dream with me" CD due out June 14

Scan the audience while Jackie Evancho is singing and you'll see maybe a quarter of them have tears streaming down their cheeks—with the rest not far behind.

This is not because she's a child. She isn’t a “child singer” anyway. She’s a singer who happens to be a child. Nor is it because she’s singing a sad song. Her magic works whatever the song.

Nor does it matter what you normally listen to. Jackie’s devotees include fans of opera, classical music, classical crossover, pop, rock, country, heavy metal, world music, easy listening…even people who don't care about music--except for Jackie's.

The diversity of “Dream with me”’s selections reflects her fans’ diversity. And she finds new depths even in songs you think another singer owns.

In performance, you see a happy child walk quickly onstage. But as she opens her mouth to sing, she becomes Orpheus…until the instant the song is done, and the child reappears, smiling, waving with both hands.

Even the experts can’t fully explain how she does this, because she’s outside their previous experience. They start by talking about the richness of her voice. I played "Angel" from this album for a friend who'd never heard of her. He said he pictured a woman in her mid-30s who looked like Nana Mouskouri, until I showed him what she looked like. His jaw dropped.

And the experts have marveled over Jackie's mastery of her instrument--of how she maintains a full, consistent tone throughout her range. Most singers have audible transitions. They also marvel at her portamento—the way she works the notes and the melodic line (without overdoing it).

They marvel over her musical intelligence. She is a serious singer. She doesn't just want you to admire the beauty of her voice; she wants to take you somewhere.

Here’s a child with a happy upbringing who sings convincingly about things she’s never experienced herself, because she's able to find the profound universals in whatever she sings about.

So when she performs "Lovers," from the Chinese movie "House of Flying Daggers," she sings about the longing in romantic love that it shares with other kinds of love-- the longing you can feel when any kind of love is denied you.

The movie’s sound track uses the formidable mezzo Kathleen Battle, who does a beautiful job with it. But Jackie’s version is even better.

You can hear many of the songs from the new album on YouTube, mostly in low-fi audience recordings. They’ll whet your appetite for this album.

As will accounts by those who have worked with her on “Dream with me.” They marvel at her professionalism—how she instantly grasps what producers tell her; how dedicated she is to recording the best performance possible.

This professionalism extends even to interviews, where she’s invariably thoughtful and diplomatic—yet so quick on her feet she never sounds rehearsed. She’s confident but never cocky, friendly but never gushy.

Sometimes a great performer’s offstage antics detract from your appreciation of her performances. But with Jackie, the more you know about her as a human being, the more you appreciate her in performance.

The only danger in getting this CD is that it may make you dissatisfied with listening to other singers, as many fans now say.

People gush over performers all the time. This is different. Listen to anything she’s done—right back to her “O mio babbino caro” at age 8--and you’ll know. And you’ll pre-order “Dream with me” so you can get it as soon as possible.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Jackie Evancho's 11th birthday is today

Jackie Evancho is not a child singer. She's a professional singer who is a child. If you haven't heard her, try this appearance on the Today show from last Novembrer 9. There are hundreds of clips of her on YouTube--some with over 7 million views.

I wrote this to commemorate her 11th birthday, which is today:

The 100th day of 2000 was what journalists call a slow news day. There were presidential elections in Greece and Georgia. The British version of the Oscars ceremony was held. “Topsy Turvy” didn’t win Best Picture, though this unconventional account of Gilbert & Sulivan’s creation and production of “The Mikado” rivaled “Amadeus” in its account of how artistic creativity flows from inspiration to actual production.

And “Buena Vista Social Club”’s inexplicably didn’t win, despite its graceful and haunting sound track, which will be remembered long after CDs of the music from winner “American Beauty” are in the nickel bins at used CD stores. “Buena Vista Social Club” is a documentary about legendary American guitarist Ry Cooder almost singlehandly reviving the long-vanished careers of a group of elderly Cuban musicians.

In North America, football and hockey teams had games here and there, with winners and losers, but I don’t care. My wife and I almost certainly went to church on that April Sunday, enjoying the balmy spring weather here, with a high of 64°, low of 51°, clear skies, gentle breezes.

Elsewhere it wasn’t so nice. I’ve been in half of our nation’s states plus Puerto Rico, but not Pennsylvania (except from 40,000 feet). However, the Farmer’s Almanac filled me in on conditions for that day. Richland Township, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, got whacked by a surprisingly cold day of drizzle and wet snow, considering that it was April already, and Saturday had started out nice. But the next day only got to a high of 39°, low 26°. A little over half an inch of water in various forms, including ice pellets.

Kind of a miserable day (at least by California standards) to be having your second child, but Mike and Lisa Evancho did anyway. And I’m sure that when Lisa was holding Jackie in her arms for the first time that day, the fact that that little face would become, eleven years later, possibly the most recognizable face of any child that age in America—that the sounds coming out of that teeny mouth would be transfixing millions of rapt listeners instead of just that infant’s mommy and daddy—those facts had to be the last thing that might have crossed their minds. It wasn’t even the mysterious magic of your first child, where you don’t know the drill yet. Joy, yes, of course. Relief too, and not a little. Two arms, two legs, right number of fingers and toes, breathing like a champ. Whew! Still, they had been there before.

And over the next seven years, did she ever give them an inkling of the fact that she was more than just a beautiful, cheerful, joyful, thoughtful little girl? Was there ever a hint of the interpretive genius within—the one that materializes instantly when she opens her mouth to sing, then dissolves back into the happy child the instant she stops…that pair of transformations that has by now been marked by literally millions of astonished viewers?

Have Mike and Lisa ever rummaged through their memories, or asked the grandparents and the other relatives, when and whether they noticed any hint of what was slowly coiling up within this child—some comment she’d make that gave them pause, but only for a moment? Some sign? Portent? Anything? At least a sign of not having a problem with stage fright—of loving to perform for others? Of course a lot of people love to perform who really, really shouldn’t. And, for some, vice-versa. It’s a happy confluence of traits when a Jackie comes along with both.  

Of course it’s hard to reflect on past years when the present has become a tornado. But the biographers are coming. I’d wager the Evanchos have already been approached by reputable publishers wanting to chronicle Jackie’s life and times. This may seem absurd on the face of it—but not to those who’ve heard her. (By “heard” I don’t just mean having been exposed to her singing, of course; I mean “heard.”)

And now she’s 11—in the prime of her life (that’s a mathematical joke)—and her prior prime was when she first started singing seriously. And her next prime will be the target of the saying “The worst two years in a woman’s life are when she’s 13—and when her daughter is.” But it’s hard to believe that Jackie won’t be the exception to that warning.

Because while she may seem too good to be true to cynics, I get the very strong feeling that it’s true that she’s just that good.

Happy birthday.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Gimme an Emmie!

Last Thursday my wife & I watched the Gray's Anatomy Musical. Seems like many long-running TV shows do a musical episode sooner or later. Often this is a Very Special Episode designed to garner support for one of those TV awards. Which is why I call this Gray's Gimme an Emmie episode.

It didn't work for us. For one thing, the premise was weak, because it was presented, more or less, as one of the characters, badly injured in a car accident, imagining that she and others were singing.

But they broke that conceit by having singing going on outside the injured person's POV (point of view). Making it a collective fantasy, same as in the traditional Hollywood musical. (see the song "Till there was you from...what was it, DamnYankees?).

They used original music which was rock-y rather than Broadway-y...and forgettable. It looked like the actors did their own singing, with lots more singing assigned to the better singners, led by Sara Ramirez, who came to Gray's from a leading singing role in the Broadway musical spoof "Spamalot," in which she excelled. So there was nothing wrong with her voice. It was just what she was given to sing, and how.

When "Scrubs" did its musical, the conceit came from a patient with some brain disease that caused her to hallucinate that she and everyone else was singing, and it stuck to her POV, and the music was better--that episode worked. It also had some humor, while "Gray's" was strictly dramatic--which also failed to utilize Sara Ramirez' formidable musical comedy skills.

Earlier, the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" musical, also using original music, also mixing humor and drama, was wonderfully successful. It this fantasy show the conceit was a Broadway demon who magicks everyone into singing--and their song reveals what they've been hiding from everyone else. So the episode doesn't just comment on everyone's situation, as "Gray's'" does--it drives the plot forward for the whole season, it doesn't violate POV, it's musically good, and, since one of the characters had summoned the demon for selfish reasons and not realizing the demon was demonically dangerous, so there's also the underlying moral of a cautionary tale about the Law of Unforseen Consequences. "Gray's" stays shallow.

Probably the father of all TV musical episodes is "The Singing Detective" by Dennis Potter, shown on PBS. That was truly a-ma-zing. Look it up (not the crummy American remake, though).

Monday, February 28, 2011

Worst moment at the Oscars

The worst moment at this Oscars awards show--and every other Oscars awards show ever, past, present and future: when the winner pulls a piece of paper out of his or her pocket and unfolds it.