Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Ladies Nights

October 29, 2007

Blurry Mariza and friends
Photo: mine 2007
With the LA Philharmonic out of town, what better way to fill the Walt Disney Concert Hall than with two return engagements from notable, but maredly different, female vocalists. On Saturday, the “Songbook Series” opened with Barbara Cook who is currently celebrating her 80th birthday with shows around the country. It is remarkable that Cook sounds as good as she does at this age and her command of an audience seems barely diminished. The set featured standards from Harold Arlen, Oscar Hammerstein, and Steven Sondheim that Cook has been singing here in Southern California over the last three years, including some more recent additions she is trying out for her NY Philharmonic appearances later this season. It is a shame that she never had the chance to work directly with Sondheim in an original show since her grasp of his work is excellent. Her performance of “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods was worth the entire price of admission alone. She was accompanied by a small ensemble here of piano, bass, and drums, and the show was simple and straightforward with a minimal amount of theatrics. It's Barbara Cook - she doesn't need them. As seems to be the current fashion for pop vocalists at the acoustically superior hall, Cook chose to sing one of her encore numbers without amplification, and it was only mildly embarrassing for everyone when some in the audience began shouting out “mike” at the start of the number as if she didn’t know what she was doing.

There were no such problems with tonight’s appearance from Portugese fado singer Mariza who was also making a second appearance at WDCH on one of her seemingly regular visits to Los Angeles. With much less experience under her belt, Mariza relished the opportunity to perform free of the microphone and delivered her signature closing number “Primavera” as well as all four encores clearly revelling in the acoustics of the hall. In fact it was in these moments that the show fully came alive with renditions of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Chaplin‘s “Smile.” Ironically, Cook had also chosen the latter song for her program which did provide a bit of contrast over the two evenings. In fact it seems odd that she would have bothered with amplification at all when it was clearly unnecessary and much of the rest of the program while strong seemed strangely distanced by it. Of course, Mariza seemed truly overjoyed to be singing in LA again in this hall if for no other reason than her friend and local mega-celebrity Frank Gehry had designed a stage set for her meant to resemble a Portugese taverna as the singer herself had grown up performing in. How successful this was is somewhat debatable in that it involved little more than seating some audience members at small tables on the stage and lining the back and sidewalls of the area with corrugated metal.

However the effect came off as stilted in that the Philharmonic, apparently unsure as to how to distribute these seats given that tickets for the event had long ago been sold, elected to seat big ticket donors and celebrities in the area dressed to the nines in obviously coordinated all black attire. (Gehry himself wisely chose to sit in the audience.) Here we watched Deborah Borda schmooze the big money before the show began with the likes of Ed Asner. I certainly don’t begrudge her or the porcess though. Heaven knows she’s got to keep this boat afloat in a country where the majority of citizens with no interest in performance or art insist on a funding system for it that necessitates this kind of pressing of the flesh. Still it's easy to ignore these issues as well as some of the more indulgent crowd-pleasing theatrics like encouraging everyone to clap along when you have the stage-presence and easy charm of a performer as formidable as this young woman. The encroachment of a few English-language songs might seem like selling out to some, but Mariza will always win on the charm offensive.

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