A white soul singer in Boston

Confident, intimate and very warm-hearted:

Barbra Streisand, … a white soul singer in Boston.
Guest: IL DIVO

When I experienced Barbra Streisand live in Boston, on October 22, 2006, she had already done eight concerts of her tour of twenty cities. There has been an incredible amount of reports on her tour by the US press and numerous fans alike. I deem it virtually impossible to add something new to that, except that I can tell you how I experienced her concert personally. When you have been a fan for forty years, yet have never watched your star live, your expectations are naturally great. On the other hand, I have tracked Streisand’s career from LP to LP, from CD to CD, from movie to movie for over decades with a lot of focus and I thought I knew very well how her voice should be evaluated after 46 demanding years But when I saw her live and listened to her performance everything turned out to be a little bit different.

The arena, which was crowded with people to the very last place, gets darkened and only the silent stage gets floodlighted in a purple tone. The orchestra plays the overture of “Funny Girl”. The 55 musicians (as well as the sound arrangers) produce a surprisingly perfect sound: dynamic, distinguished, transparent.

The hearts of all hard-boiled Streisand fans begin to leap with joy now. I’m with them: the music for the musically “Funny Girl” automatically gets identified with Streisand and her exceptional personality. The anticipation of the joy, which is huge already, rises even more.The track has come to an end and SHE walks from the background on stage – slowly and without producing a sound. Dressed elegantly, medium in size and far from being as fat as the yellow press would have it recently, she is standing there while she welcomes the audience with a friendly smile on her lips. Then she proceeds to say a few nice things about Boston, where she had not been for some 40 years indeed. Everyone cheers and applauds. Tears start to flow with the young woman next to me. As the audience calms down, Barbra starts gently with Starting Here, Starting Now”.Her voice sounds extraordinarily beautiful and also steady and pure-toned.

The she continues to the high-pitched and stressed note, which pushes the song to its height with lots of effect and which requires great amounts of vocal force. Even more so, because the next note is stressed equally but even higher! Unfortunately, the first long note gets drowned in the loud rejoice and clapping of the audience. Only after that you can hear how Barbra manages to hold the tone with a tremendous force and how she is able to push it even higher. The sound of her voice develops a dramatic fullness and widens to embrace the whole room with a bit more echo than known from CD, but at the same time warmer and closer. She’s alive. Now. The audience claps like crazy and cheers to the stage in passion.

The people there accompany each new song of Barbra with lots of applause from the very beginning of the concert. Next, she rouses everyone with “Down with Love” which is swinging with a lot of temperament. Even more than with her concerts of 1994 and 2000 Barbra turns to the classical ballads and musical songs this time. During this concert you realize that songs like Down with Love, When the Sun Comes Out, My Man, People or Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair are doubtlessly of highest quality and that they open up the possibility to show all of her talents.

The case with good artists goes something like that: the better the original, the better (the cover of) the artist can be. Some of her songs in this concert are very much geared towards jazz. That is why the new live version of Harold Arlens Come Rain, Come Shine is her most impulsive one yet. The arrangement is better than in earlier recordings, too. Barbra transforms When the Sun Comes Out, that belt-out-song, into a tour de force: her voice belts out with lots of vigor against the great big band – awesome, this is how it should be, how it should sound like.But it is not only that voice that is so fascinating. Barbra can demonstrate her unique presence on stage in an extraordinary way and thus can lend her performance truthfulness. This is well-known and a lot has been written about that and everyone who saw her before me has fantacized about it. I live through that now, today, in this very moment: I can sense that she reaches everyone in this hall, even those in the most backward and highest places You cannot clearly tell if it is some kind of secret magic of Streisand or just her professional musical knowledge about these wonderful songs: stories on disappointments and unfulfilled love, which she lives through again in such a great performance.

Certainly, at the same time it is the sheer admiration her fans that gets projected unto her. Thus, a mutual effect of identification develops.The confidence the fans have in Barbra lends her more self-confidence and even makes her more sensitive concerning her performance. In her younger years she impressed critics and fans alike with the force of her voice, which she used permanently and which was almost unbecoming. Furthermore, she used these high and oftentimes steely pitch levels. Naturally, she has made less use of such excursions and of that great volume in recent years – which is a good thing, because her voice sounded beautiful, relaxed and unspent. Certainly, her voice has lost a bit of volume and endurance.

On the other hand, it has won an exceedingly beautiful deeper register full of warmth. It unfolds very clearly in her ballads during the evening.It is hard to decide which song was the absolute highlight of the evening … taken individually each song was its own highlight. Yet, the ballads “What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life”, “People” and especially “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” have proven that Barbra is able to sing these songs with more nuances than in her younger years due to the experiences of a full life. During the song he moved to the right side of the stage, almost right in front of me, and sat down on a chair there. This proximity along with the irresistible mellowness of her voice touched me in a way beyond all description.

She emanated so much presence, fragility and warmth, her ravishing charisma totally caught me.And the most melancholic “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” did its own part to carry me away. Her singing, which was artfully distinguished while very natural at the same time, created a sparkling expression of atmosphere: she granted the audience a glimpse into the fragile emotional world of a human, who believes to have lost the grasp on life, who does not know where he or she is standing right now. It is a sublime, dear moment when a Barbra Streisand convinces with such a line of text: “no daddy dear, you never could have known that I would be successful, yet so very much alone”…

Ray Charles once said on Barbra Streisand: “She is the greatest living white female singer today. She doesn’t just sing notes but sings feelings.” For me Barbra is the greatest white woman soul singer, which may sound strange to some at first. Streisand does use other forms of musical expression than what is normally known as soul music, because she does not have that rough or hoarse voice and stomping rhythm is not her cup of tea. But soul music essentially revolves around expressing ones emotions and the reality of the environment in an intensive and authentic way. And soul music cannot be the monopoly of coloured musicians. Is it possible to think of something more authentic and intensive than a Barbra Streisand? She has exposed her soul in countless songs. Who can sing with more depth of expression? Isn’t she the original who has set standards for many woman singers? From the very beginning she has always remained true to herself and she has not copied anyone to this day. It is easy and shallow to put a Barbra Streisand into the Las Vegas glamour corner just because she also sings at such places.Barbra Streisand was able to transform the huge arena in Boston into an intimate club with most of her songs this evening. No coloured wafts of mist on stage, no goofy dancers jumping around her without which no other pop star moves on stage these days.

She just stands silently on stage most of the time or she sits on a stool and 18.000 people listen to her charming performance, which is warm and real and does not have a thing in common with Kitsch. (I will relate to Kitsch later when talking about the performance of Il Divo.)Her singing, her voice embraced everything, just as if she had wanted to stroke the audience with it. There were people of all social classes and of all ages. Behind me were some wheelchair users. Among them was a woman of approximately 80 years, who had an oxygen cannula in her nose. Very young people were there, too. I met some of them in the break. They addressed me, because they appreciated my self-made Barbra t-shirt. They had come exclusively for the concert from Rome, Paris or the Saarland. Martina, a student aged 20, came over from Vienna. A young Israelite fan I know travelled from Tel Aviv to New York only to see Barbra in the Madison Square Garden. Yes, Barbra is being loved – in a rather unique way.When the guest stars Il Divo walk on stage later that evening I feel disturbed in the otherwise harmonic order of the concert. The bombastic song “Don’t Break My Heart” by Toni Braxton is performed in an acceptable way yet. But then they sing Sinatra’s “My Way”.

Before that, the four tenors, who are young and attractive, declare that they dedicate this song to Barbra and that they want to sing it in “Streisand’s way”. (Whatever they mean by that, oh my God!!) What follows then is super schmaltzy roaring performed with greatest volume. Their trained voices indulge in a constant obsolete tremolo and are full of pathos. They sing mawkishly, coo, belt out and yodel and thus find themselves a full hundred years before Sinatra. In volume their performance reached the pain threshold and it was the loudest, most trashy and insensitive performance of the whole evening. Il Divo confuse depth of expression with volume. When I set high standards for the quality of music I cannot but deem this performance terrible. The tenors think their voices are enough – but what good is good voices when they just bleat that uninspired and loud?

Some critics had Andrew Webber’s “Music of the Night” as the highlight of the concert. I was not especially content with this song either, although Barbra joins in in the second part of the song and her voice fits well in succession with Il Divo. The same is true for “Evergreen”. Basically, along with me many people would like to have listened to Barbra alone with her songs, probably. Of course, Il Divo have their fans, too. “My Way” got lots of applause, because it had something shamelessly spectacular about it. On the other hand, I noticed that a lot of people left the hall especially during Il Divo’s performance to go to the toilet or fetch something to eat or drink. (What I deem a very distinct, rather bad trait of the Americans…)To come to an end with the chapter “Il Divo” I have to jump ahead to act two. Shortly before the end of the concert the four bards reappear on stage in order to finish Barbra’s hymnal “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story”.

There is something about that song. Although I think the combination Streisand-Il Divo is still kitschy, it works better for that particular song. The five voices completed a bombastic and cleverly launched performance, which you almost would have expected for the ending of such an evening anyway. Of course, there were standing ovations again. And I contend the performance was impressive concerning its musical force. Yet, Barbra alone would have performed the song more adequately, distinguished and eventually more beautifully with the infallible elegance and the force of radiation of her voice. My opinion echoes the opinion of the US press, which goes as follows by the majority: Barbra Streisand does not need Il Divo.

The first act finishes with melodies of “Funny Girl”. It is more than simply astonishing that Barbra is still able to interpret the songs “People” and “My Man” in such a convincing way after countless performances. “My Man” succeeds in having all people jump up from their seats. After the break the first song she performs is the show stopper “When the Sun Comes Out”. (I already related to this one.) The audience is overwhelmed by a furious jazz version of the song. It was a grandiose performance.

What amazes me over and again is the quality of the voice of Barbra Streisand, who is 64 already. After that she dedicates a song to her son Jason, whom she loves so much, which happens quite often at her concerts. The title of the song by Sondheim is “Children Will Listen”. It is clearly more than a simple ballad. Its characteristic features are vehement variations of tempo and strong heights and depths of pitch. The melody is characterized by almost abrupt succession of drama with softness. But Streisand’s voice is experienced in expressing such songs and it became clear again that she is a song stylist in the truest sense of the word.About that time she utters the controversial Bush sketch. It is humorous, ironical, but in no sense vicious as the US press reported sometimes. I did not get all of it, but the audience in Boston burst out into a peal of laughter.

Storms of enthusiasm followed, the audience had lots of fun with the sketch.Three songs this evening had not been sung before. The song “Unusual Way”, which is very quiet and very beautiful, is sung with supreme quality of bel canto. I am already looking forward to her next CD so that I can listen to the song again. The song “Cockeyed Optimist”, which is more popular, from the musical “South Pacific” is a rather light and harmless song. In Barbra’s version, however, starting in the middle of the song a hurricane sweeps over it. The orchestra and her voice compete with each other for the best performance in some kind of ecstatic eruption. Marvellous.

The applause could not be more frenzied. The third title which was previously not sung before is “Shining Hour”. This is also a song by her favourite composer Harold Arlen. She sings it in a quite simple way and exchanges some words with audience during the song. I already mentioned two songs after that: “What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” – maybe the most beautiful ballads of the evening.

With her performance of these, she has undoubtedly created two musical pieces of art; for the time being unmatched and inviolable by any other artist. The pure sound of her voice was all magic. And this performance I will hold in remembrance for the longest time.Time went by very fast, one could have listened to her for hours on end. With each further song I felt like travelling to another world. The audience was awesome, they acclaimed Barbra Streisand almost as if she was a wonder of the world (in order to illustrate this enthusiasm one fan wrote in a review: she is the eighth wonder of the world!!!).

When Barbra wanted to say something after a song and all the applause that followed everyone turned quiet for a moment. In this very moment someone yelled loudly and clearly audible: “I love you Barbra.” She just replied gently: “Oh … thank you.” The way she communicated with the audience this evening was very intimate, warm-hearted and likeable.

Leaving the stage after “Somewhere”, she reappeared on stage after standing ovations and performed the Broadway recapitulation of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as an encore (a planned encore, certainly)! WOW, what a performance. She outperformed herself! For a last time she rushed over the stage, let her voice sparkle and spray. This last performance was very short and overwhelming. Then she was gone; had just disappeared. She left behind an empty stage and a crowd of 18.000 people, who screamed, cheered and clapped their hands for minutes. We all knew that she had reappeared in her previous concerts and sung the old Chaplin song “Smile” as a last encore. But this time she did not come back to the stage. The lights went on. It was over, really over.The after-effect of the concert is even greater for me than the joy of anticipation and the great expectations.

The costly trip to Boston paid of f– and even more than that. Now that I’ve seen Barbra Streisand live, her music and her art have become even more dear and important to me.

October 29, 2006

Translation: Nico Thieme