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She Can Carry a Tune, but Songs' Messages Get Left Behind

A thrilling style is a poor substitute for interpretation as opera diva Frederica von Stade sings the standards.

October 26, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A rose may be just a rose, but singing is never just singing. And the distinctions between styles of singing are never made more clear than when an artist from one discipline tries to enter a different arena.

This is what opera diva Frederica von Stade tried to do Friday night, when she sang a collection of popular songs with the Pacific Symphony Pops at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

What became clear was that Von Stade--whose classical skills are beyond reproach--has not discovered how to adapt those skills to the special needs of theater tunes and pop music.

In song after song--whether on a vigorous, upbeat number such as "I Got Rhythm" or the more soaring vocal line of a ballad such as "Can't Help Lovin' That Man"--Von Stade was captivated by the articulation of her sound, rather than by the interpretation of the song.

There's no doubt that there was plenty to admire in that sound. When Von Stade unleashed one of her trademark, bel canto-seasoned high notes, the results were thrilling.

Still, most of her numbers were not arias, which are crafted to display a singer's talents as much as (and often more than) to advance the action of an opera.

Songs such as "Sleepin' Bee" and "How Long Has This Been Going On" undoubtedly serve a dramatic purpose as elements in musicals, but they have since evolved to become musical miniatures, complete in and of themselves. Unfortunately, in her tendency to lose track of a song's thematic line by emphasizing the most thrilling vocal passages, Von Stade missed the point in much of what she sang.

Nor was she helped by frequent problems with pitch, particularly disturbing when she opened phrases by swooping up into notes, presumably intended as her versions of a pop or jazz stylistic device. Yet they came across as confusion about the precise location of the melody.

Not until the second half of the program, in her rendering of "Send in the Clowns"--one of only two or three numbers in which she backed off from her vocal powers to favor the material--did Von Stade's potential with this kind of material begin to surface. A similarly focused approach would have done wonders for the balance of the concert.

The Pacific Symphony Pops, conducted by Jack Everly, filled in the gaps around Von Stade's performance with well-crafted romps through a number of attractive musical theater overtures, among them "Kiss Me Kate," "Girl Crazy" and "West Side Story." Hearing them, one could only marvel at the songwriting talent that could produce two and three utterly memorable popular songs in a single show.

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