Friday, November 29, 2013

Did Whitney Houston do right or do wrong when she redid the National Anthem back in 1991?

Whitney Houston seriously rearranged the Nation Anthem for a football game in '91. Many loved
what she did. Others said things like this:

"Maybe the composers would be miffed that the simple harmonic structure was changed to please a certain group of people."

The composer of the music was John Stafford Smith, words by Ralph Tomlinson, as a posh drinking song for an English gentlemen's club:

--as Sung at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand
--the Words by RALPH TOMLINSON ESQ R, late President of that SOCIETY

To ANACREON in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"No longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS's Vine.

More verses follow in similar vein.

You can hear it here:

So first we must ask what Mssrs. Smith and Tomlinson would have thought about some tax-dodging enemies of their nation transmogrifying their club's jolly drinking song into a revolutionary anthem.

After that jolt I can't imagine Whitney Houston's morphs adding much injury (from their POV) to what Francis Scott Keys did during the War of 1812.

My personal all-time favorite composer, J.S. Bach, reharmonized many a hymn in his day. Would Hans Leo Hassler have objected to Bach's redo of his beautiful Easter hymn "o haupt voll blut und wunden" from this:

to this?

Hassler's original is lovely. Bach's makes me weep (and I'm not even a Christian).

Note that he rerythm'd that along with changing the harmony, as Whitney did with our anthem.

There is no bright, clear line between "composer" and "interpreter." For me what matters isn't what's different but what moves me. Most National Anthem re-dos make me wince, to be honest. If you're going to mess with a nation's anthem you'd better know what you're doing. But in this case I think Whitney did.

As you can see from the innumerable comments by listeners who said and say how meaningful Whitney's version was--including families of our military who were serving in the Gulf at that time.

Whereas all the miserable perversions of both the anthem and Whitney's revision mostly get comments that put in words what would appear on my old German shepherd's face when I'd try to play the harmonica and he'd desperately paw at the instrument trying to get me to stop. 
And for those who'd like to hear our national anthem done in a way Francis Scott Keys would be more likely to recognize, we now have the Jackie Evancho acapella rendition from Thanksgiving Day, November 11, 2013:
(it had to be distorted some to avoid the NFL's lawyers, who had YouTube suppress the original, for unfathomable reasons)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Jackie Evancho's new role model--Miley Cyrus?

Jackie Evancho is a refined Classical Crossover soprano. Miley Cyrus is a badass rocker. With some things Jackie could learn from.

Not talking about Miley's propensity to deface her own body with big ugly tattoos (as Rihanna has also done), or her raunchy exhibitionism. But my wife's religion teaches us to look for what's worthy/admirable everywhere, not just within the circle of those we approve of in all regards.

And Miley, as of her American Music Awards performance, shows things Jackie would find it useful to pay attention to.
something for the refined soprano to learn from.

1. Miley has a strong voice. It's not beautiful like Jackie's but it is strong--a bit like Martha Raye's was--and Miley knows how to exploit the voice she's got.

2. Her performance was innovative/clever/memorable while staying within her genre. The giant back-projected lipsynching pussycat was very effective, and the way Miley organized the different elements of her performance, from her costumery to the back projected stuff to her gestural repertoire, all were mutually reinforcing and even pertained to the words she was singing.

3. She's kind of fearless. I realize fearlessness is not by itself a survival trait, but I think she uses her bravery to contribute to her genre. At the same time I don't hear about her partying wildly like Lindsay Lohan and her drug-using ilk. I don't heed the scandal rags, but I get the impression that Miley's antics are more performance art than the expressions of personal dissolution as with Lohan and poor Amy Winehouse.

4. Her performance was passionate and vulnerable; not just another "let's party!" anthem as many of her peers stick to.

5. Her outfit, while skimpy, wasn't so much lubricious as showing how incredibly fit she is--something not possible with a dissolute personal lifestyle BTW. And the pussycat pattern resonated with the giant puddy tat singing behind her.

Of course I am not recommending that Jackie dress like or sing like her. Only that there are things to learn from musical innovators in other genres, and Miley is one of those.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Lessons for Classical Crossover singer Jackie Evancho from the American Music Awards

Lessons for Jackie from the American Music Awards (last night)

The band Imagine Dragons added a taiko-ish set of drums to their setup and did some taiko drumming with some choreography during their song
Lesson: bringing in stuff from outside the normal context of the genre. It worked, too.

Miley Cyrus probably did the most innovative performance of the evening, near the end, with a giant puddy tat on a rear projection screen lipsynching her song with her, with a funny/sad tears effect midway and a very Japanese anime-style cat wink at the end.
Lesson: again, bringing in stuff from outside the normal genre boundaries, plus a sense of humor/whimsy. I also noticed that Cyrus isn't half bad as a singer and as a songwriter. Just because she's OTT doesn't mean she isn't creative.

Conversely, Katy Perry performed in Geisha drag (sans the white makeup) at the beginning but didn't use the "look" very creatively, I thought. Not integrated with the music. Pretty but superficial. On the other hand she brought a disabled girl and her family to the show as her guests. That was classy.

Lady Gaga channeled Marilyn Monroe's affair with JFK. Then she had big headlines rear-projected about stuff like "Lady Gaga is fat" "Lady Gaga is washed up."
Lesson: Be careful when you use a murdered major historical figure to obsess about yourself. She'd really thrown herself into the production and the music, but the stuff on the wall behind her made her look small.

Ariana Granda sang a neo-Doo-Wop number dressed in an elegant floor-length gown
Lesson: I think she's one of the classier pop celebs out there right now. I could imagine Ariana and Jackie doing something together at some point. I thought the song and the performance were quite good--and quite tasteful.
Lesson: Don't wear a gown that looks great if you're standing still but which makes you look ridiculous if you're going to be seen walking in it. Ariana won New Artist award and had to totter up onto the stage because she basically couldn't move her legs above the knee. Had to go up the steps one at a time. Reminded me of why they're called Hobble Skirts.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jackie Evancho concert experience

Went to see Jackie Evancho in concert Friday, November 8. I believe comments on this performance apply to most of her concerts until her new CD drops--probably next year--though of course as we approach Christmas no doubt she'll add some seasonal songs.

This review is aimed at people who are fans of young soprano Jackie Evancho. I'll write something else for people who aren't familiar with her work.

If this concert is the template, the new series comprises songs from her CDs Songs from the Silver Screen and Dream with Me—nothing else (with one exception), and no duets, either with another instrument or another singer. One new element has been added: Jackie selecting half a dozen or so kids from the audience to join her onstage, answer a question, and listen to her sing two songs. But wait, there's more: the other new element—and it's a doozy—is the singer.

Jackie is now a young lady. It's not a complete transformation. She talks younger than she sings. But when she's singing in her now-slimmer spaghetti-strap floor length gowns and high heels, and in her teenage voice that's a little weaker on top but even richer and more expressive down below, you can now see more clearly the woman she's rapidly becoming, both in her appearance and in her art.

If she's performing within a few hours' drive of you it's a no brainer: go. If it's farther, requiring an overnight stay and perhaps a flight...I'd go at least once during this new series that I'm guessing will run until her new CD drops. Especially if you've only seen Jackie the child perform.

I will add that seeing her live really is different, even if you've played her CDs and even her DVDs a thousand times. Moreover, seeing her live from good seats is even more different. The last time we saw her was from a balcony far, far away. This time we were in the second row center, for a lot more money. It was worth it.

I didn't do the meet & greet, so others must tell you about that. For my part what I'd like Team E to do is instead or in addition have a 15 minute Q&A from the stage before or after the concert, possibly answering written questions submitted at the start or emailed beforehand by attendees. This is done by many performers we've seen.

Jackie puts on a great show. It's a little rough around the edges, as a show featuring a 13 year old is bound to be (I wouldn't want it to seem all scripted/canned anyway). Some of the orchestral interludes are more successful than ot­hers. It costs more to see Jackie than any other live act we go to, and we've seen a lot of live acts, though mostly on the college circuit.

Nevertheless Jackie has a unique voice, even though she isn't yet doing unique songs. Just as you'll never be able to see Jackie the child again, once Jackie is finished growing and takes her adult form completely, you'll never be able to see Jackie the teen again either. And she is going to be an important, beloved performer for many years, as David Foster said and I concur. So I think you owe it to yourself to see her at least once at this moment in her life and career.

One other thing: the Groupon half price offer was what we needed to persuade two friends to join us at the concert. I've been playing them Jackie YouTube clips for three years to no avail. But they tell me now they get it—even though their seats were pretty far back on the main floor. You may have friends like this, so let me encourage you to encourage them to come see her live. Particularly if they still have young girls in the home—young boys too.


Some more detailed observations (still aimed mostly at current fans of Jackie Evancho):

My wife & I saw Jackie Evancho with a pair of close friends.

Between the four of us we represented the gamut of Jackie's paying customers. I'm a dedicated fan. My wife likes Jackie but not enough to participate in fan forums, and I'm not sure she'd go to a live Jackie concert if it were up to her. She is a Josh Groban fan, though not active on any Groban forums. In general she rather prefers male voices while I rather prefer female voices, though both of us certainly like lots of same-sex-as-ourselves singers.

Our friends wouldn't have come except for the Groupon deal. Though they came away saying they now understood why I like her so much—despite my having played them lots of YouTube clips over the past three years on our home theater with a 46” screen and surround sound. It took seeing her live to seal the deal, and they came to see her live because I twisted their arms.

None of the four of us had had any particular interest in child singers. My wife & I have always loved music. She can read music and has very good pitch sense (years of violin as a child helped). Classical Crossover is one of her favorite genres, along with soft rock and black Motown-era music, and Gospel music plus music of her church (Mormon). I lack her musical training and fine pitch sense but I'm well-traveled musically, with broader musical interests than anyone else I've ever met.

Our friends are less musical. One is Russian and culturally Jewish, and most loves passionate Russian folk/pop that she remembers from her youth. Her primary artistic modality is Russian literature. The other friend is Indian and culturally Hindu, who loves traditional popular and classical Indian music, though he likes a lot of other stuff. We took him to a Mormon Tabernacle Choir performance a few years ago and he loved it. Also a lot of world music, as I've seen from many world music concerts we've attended together.

He loved the beauty of Jackie's voice; the song selections generally appealed to him, though he didn't have a lot to say about particular songs. He loved the simplicity of the presentation. He dislikes Bollywood movies and instead prefers the old Indian tradition of a singer standing there and singing, without being surrounded by razzamatazz.

Our Russian friend most liked Jackie's more emotive/passionate selections, such as Impossible Dream, and she most liked Jackie's lower register. Jackie wore two floor-length dresses for the concert, a blue one and a black & silver one. Our Russian friend preferred the second one, saying it looked more mature and more suited to Jackie's current age and the maturity of her song presentation.

Both dresses had spaghetti straps, and she wore sparkly silver high heeled sandals under both—I'm guessing 3” heels. She wore her hair down and long—to the bottom of her shoulder blades I'd say—in a style that tended to slip towards sort of covering her right eye, such that she frequently reached up to move it back.

We had tickets in the second row just off-center, while they were in the back third of the first floor. The tickets said “Orchestra” but it was far enough that our Indian friend felt he'd made a mistake in not bringing binoculars.

We've attended many concerts with them, and in general we all like being maybe 10 rows back in the center. This was the first time I've really wanted to be close to the stage, and I'm glad we were. Our friends certainly wanted to be closer than they were.

Neither of them had any complaints about Jackie selecting over half a dozen children and having them come to the stage for two songs. They found it charming. We did two, though being in the second row we could easily see all the kids' expressions and body language, which helped a lot I thought. If I'd been off in the cheap seats I don't think I'd have found it as charming.

The kids she picked ranged in age from three to eleven, I reckon. Mostly girls. Once they were all up there she asked them to express a wish and then got the answer from each in turn. One was so terrified she couldn't get a word out, but when her grandma came up to take her back to her seat she refused and stayed for the whole two songs and patter.

Jackie was very big sister-y through this part. As she sang when they were on the stage seated around her she kept making eye contact with them. When she sent the kids back to their seats after the second song she momentarily forgot her place in the program, seeming to think she was due to sing another song. But then she looked down at the playlist taped to the stage and realized it was time for the intermission. She waved to the audience, smiling in slight embarrassment, then walked offstage quickly. She seemed at ease in her heels and in manuvering with a floor-length dress over those heels. Both dresses were much less flouncy than in past years. Both had spaghetti straps for a somewhat more mature affect, though still age-appropriate by all but the most puritanical standards.

My wife noticed that Jackie slightly missed a high note on one of the songs, and in general we both noticed that her top end didn't seem as effortless as the last time we saw her perform a year and a half ago, at Davies Hall in San Francisco. It's possible that at this point in time she's a mezzo, though of course that could change later. I wonder whether she should transpose some of her songs down a note or two (as long as that doesn't push the song's low notes out of scope of course)? I don't know the answer, but the thought did occur to me.

Let me reassure readers that these issues were all minor quibbles. All four of us were glad we'd come to the concert, and left feeling like we'd gotten our money's worth—and for us (especially my wife & me) it was a lot—more than we've ever paid for a live performance. The kind of concerts we normally attend are at the two major universities in our area (Stanford and UC Berkeley), and tickets there are generally a third the cost of Jackie's. And we aren't rolling in dough. So saying we'd gotten our money's worth doesn't come lightly. Mostly our discretionary budget goes for scuba diving trips to southeast Asia, partly because it's a lot cheaper there even with the airfare.

That said, I wouldn't pay to see her again until she has new material. She announced at the beginning that she'd be singing songs from Dream with Me and Songs from the Silver Screen, and that's all she did. I think she's also pared down the orchestra a bit. I think it was around two dozen musicians, while at Davies Hall my memory tells me it was closer to three dozen.

Also there were no duets, neither with singers nor with instruments. Nor did she do any of the songs she sings as duets on her CDs. Variety was provided by the orchestra doing numbers through the evening.

The least successful was a thunderous instrumental interpretation of Queen's rock epic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Maybe they didn't have time enough time to rehearse it, but it was off enough to make my wife & I look at each other & wince occasionally. My rhythmic sense is as sharp as my wife's pitch sense, and we both heard wowsers through the piece. Most important was the fact that the orchestra wasn't quite on top of the rhythms and rythmic dynamics required for this kind of music. I've seen this issue with classical musicians before—of just not being sharp rhythmically, and as a consequence kind of galumphing through a rock piece.

More later.


1. orchestral number -- Cavellerea Rusticana

2. Pure Imagination

3. When you wish upon a star

4. Ombra mai fu

5. orchestral interlude -- Pirates of the Caribbean

6. To where you are [not from Dream with Me or Songs from the Silver Screen--the one exception]

7. Reflection

8. The Lord's Prayer

9. [intermission]

10. Lovers (sans Asian instruments)

11. (brings kids on stage) My heart will go on

12. Imaginer (ushers kids offstage after this)

13. orchestral interlude (iffy rendition of Queen's magnum opus) Bohemian Rhapsody - yeah, it was a little rough. The performance I originally sent him was really cool.

14. Se (aka Cinema Paradiso)

15. Impossible Dream (dedicated to her mother)

16. Encore: Music of the night



re: Jackie's effect

Music evolved from something very like the way wolves vocalize together before going out on the hunt--as tribal reification (reinforcing the sense of shared lives, shared purpose, shared values). It has a second, unrelated evolutionary source: demonstration of fitness as a mate. Most pop music evokes the latter. Jackie evokes the former. As such she taps deeply into our innate tribalism--a "I'm part of something bigger than myself, something I honor...and need" strongly.

So her music is more than music. 


My Russian friend said this in response to my review, entered here verbatim except for her friend's name:

Mostly agree, but want to clarify some points: 
- I don't think it is accurate to describe me as preferring folk/pop, since the actual music you're referring to is neither, and very far from both. I would say i prefer ethnic music - starting from French chanson, Argentinian tango, Russian romances, Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco, etc, all the ways to Japanese Taiko drums and/or American Broadway. And i do enjoy occasional opera or a classic piece, especially if it's an already familiar one. 
Although, being more of a visual creature, i do prefer ballet, or Fantasia's multi-modal approach:) 

- Both me and [my Indian friend] didn't see much value into kids-on-stage part of a show, besides the fact that Jackie really enjoyed it - then of course, why shouldn't she have some fun, too. But it didn't do much for me, may be because i was too far to see the faces.

- My main beef was about the songs selection - it is no wonder, giving my tastes, that i preferred songs filled with more passion and energy, and wished for even more of those. My favorite was Lovers, followed by Impossible Dream and an old favorite from Phantom of the Opera. 
I think i would also enjoy occasional change of pace, a fast tempo song, or an attempt of some humor, which this time, i think, the orchestra tried to provide. 
As I recall, [my Indian friend] said that it all sounded like a one long melancholy song to him (albeit a very beautiful one).