Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Douglas Messerli | Songs Porcelain and Silver-Plated (on Barbra Streisand's 2017 concert)

by Douglas Messerli

Barbra Steisand Barbra: The Music, The Memories, the Magic / 2017

Just before Christmas, I sat down to watch the first recording of a Barbra Streisand concert that I had seen since I was a teenager.

      In several ways, this older Barbra is even better than her younger self of the 1960s when she performed in My Name Is Barbra and Color Me Barbra. Certainly, she now seems less showy and far more sure of herself. She loves, as this Netflix-sponsored film makes clear, to be in charge. And she is in charge, apparently of nearly everything: the songs she sings (even in Funny Girl she insisted to 
Flo Ziegfeld that she had to choose her own songs), the instrumentation, the pacing of her performance, and, most importantly, she utterly controls her amazing tonal modulations, altering between a quiet hum, melodic whispers, and old-fashioned vocal “belting it out.”
     If anything, she now has greater vocal control, but she’s always had one of the most remarkable voices in song-singing history. Like the very greats, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, and so many others, Streisand’s voice is always recognizable and memorable in a way that has attracted what seem to be worshippers more than a mere audience. The Miami audience here felt that they not merely needed to madly applaud each song, but turned every number into a standing ovation, to which Streisand generally and seemingly honestly awarded with a “Thank you,” “Wow!” “I’m glad you liked it!” or “You’re a wonderful audience.”
     If you like good music and, like me, are a hardened liberal, what is there not to like? Although Streisand restrained herself at this concert, you clearly knew what she felt about Trump and his kind, and if you live in Los Angeles, it’s hard not to know that she has given millions to hospitals and other charities. And, because of her talent and goodness of heart, you can almost forgive her from some of her crazy obsessions, like constructing a kind of mini-mall, just for herself, in the basement of her Malibu house. The very fact that she’s still singing so very gloriously is a cause for celebration. So what if she centers much of this concert around her own past achievements, singing far too many of her standards such as “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen?” Give the girl some credit.
      And credit she certainly got from her audience. As Robert Lloyd summarized it in the Los Angeles Times:

Like any great artist, she is at the mercy of the character she converts to art. ("I could not help but do it my way" is a theme of the evening.) She is complicated and contradictory, a Countess from Brooklyn, ethnic and elevated. Her singing is the sound of aspiration, of arrival, of indomitability. It is practiced and it's punk, it's tender and ferocious; she can create an impression of great power by getting very quiet. Her diction is impeccable, her accent unreconstructed. She is precise with her consonants and extravagant with her vowels.

      Yet why did I still have this strange feeling that I would have preferred to be hearing Garland and Clooney, or even the far rawer Bette Midler; it surely would have been more fun. Or listening to a great Broadway songstress like Christine Ebersole, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald, or Patti LaPone, all of whom I’ve heard live on stage. Of course, I too liked Streisand on the movie musicals of Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! What I kept asking myself was what wrong with this wonderful performance?
Image result for Barbra: The Music, The Memories, The Magic
       When Streisand sings a stage musical number such as Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” Anthony Newley’s and Leslie Bricusse’s “Who Can I Turn To,” or Jerry Herman’s “Before the Parade Passes By,” I immediately wake up; I too might have given her a standing ovation just for the Newley piece. And I have to give her an award for hutzpah for tackling the dead-on-arrival Rodgers and Hammerstein walnut, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (with Jaime Fox, no less). I could hardly bear that song even in my high school production.
     But the problem is, and always has been, is that, at heart, Streisand prefers the kitsch. She clearly prefers working with Alan and Marilyn Bergman and composers such as Marvin Hamlisch, or with Dave Brusin and Phil Ramone, as she did in her Yentl’s “Pappa Can You Hear Me?” (sorry not the same Yentl I recall from Isaac B. Singer)—all gifted purveyors of populist nonsense, as opposed to the greats like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, or Stephen Sondheim. Even with all her talent, Streisand still prefers the musical silver-plated and porcelain-like knock-offs produced for Hollywood in the manner of The Franklin Mint. Almost every time she has a choice, Streisand chooses sentimentality over wit. And in the end, despite the wonderment she brings to nearly every musical offering, her artistry suffers.
       It’s not that LaPone or McDonald have never sung the Broadway versions of these same knock-offs, written by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney composers; it’s simply that they keep it in proportion, returning to Sondheim or even Jule Styne (the man who actually made Streisand famous), whereas Streisand obviously would rather work with her long-time friends, the Bergmans. I am sure that many in her Miami audience actually prefer “Evergreen” and Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” over her nearly perfect rendition of “People.” But Streisand, apparently, doesn’t even recognize the difference.

Los Angeles, December 27, 2017

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