When Suzy and I have told people we went to hear Barbra Streisand in concert Thursday night (November 16th) the almost universal reaction has been a discreet, “Well, Barbra Streisand is not my cup of tea, but I’m glad you had fun.” Internally their reaction is roughly the same as if we had said we’d attended a public hanging.
Fortunately for Babs’ career, there are quite a few people for whom she still is their cup of tea, even their choice of thirty-year-old single-malt, judging from the number of people willing to pay between $150 and $500 (and more) per ticket to experience the occasion. Given that Barbra Streisand concerts have become sufficiently rare that they have taken on the status of historical occasions, we opted to splurge and go. To heck with the mortgage payment.
The venue was the US Airways Center basketball arena — not the best setting for musical enjoyment, unless that music is electronically amplified to perversely unnatural proportions. You wouldn’t want to go there to hear Gustav Leonhardt play a concert of Frescobaldi Canzonas on the clavichord. And if you happen to be sitting in one of those seats of a width appropriate for a high school cheerleader but are between two great big fatsos, your concert experience will not be an entirely pleasant one. But for music that consists of mostly amplified noise, the arena works passably well.
From where we sat — in the next to last row of the upper level, as far away as possible, but in the dead center, such that if a perpendicular were extended from the front plane of the stage it would split the seats between me and the lady on my left — Barbra was recognizable only with the aid of binoculars. This was compensated for by showing her closeups on enormous video monitors on either side of the stage, which meant that we paid $300 to fight unbelievable traffic to get to uncomfortable seats where we heard electronic renditions of Barbara Streisand singing while watching her on TV. Knowing that she was really down there in person, that speck walking back and forth on the stage, made it all worth it, I suppose.
It’s an honored tradition for popular music concerts to start late, so no one bothers to come to them on time. The scheduled start time was 7:30, but not a note of music was heard until shortly after 8:00, which is unforgivable. Some people made sacrifices to be there, and had to get up early to go to work the next day. Despite this, the last two people to arrive in our row did not arrive until 8:20, requiring everyone to stand up and let them squeeze by in the dark while the music was playing, because, of course, their seats were in the very middle of the row. Thanks.
As I looked around I noted the constituency of the audience: almost no young people at all, and an average age of around fifty, but not quite the white-haired set. I guess that would mean it’s mainly baby boomers. In the world of live music performances the rule tends to be: the older the music, the older the audience. Dress was strictly informal without being gross, of the type worn by sports crowds. To my surprise, the house was only about 80% sold out by my estimation.
Our section was graced with what were inarguably the two single loudest hooters in the joint, fans who waited on the edge of their chairs for the slightest sign of recognition of a newly started song to make a scene at the top of their lungs. If I’d been performing, I would have appreciated the devotion, but hated the rude interruptions.
“Meeeeem — ‘rieeees …”
WHOOOOOOO! YEAAAAAAH! WOOO HOOOOO!
YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!
So we’d paid $300 to witness a recreation of Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour? Sorry, but my classical music background simply cannot accept that low level of vociferous hick culture.
The concert itself was good and undeniably enjoyable, but far from the greatest I’ve ever heard. It was merely Barbra singing — which is exactly what one would hope for, and certainly what I came to hear — mostly songs everyone present had heard many times before as long as forty years ago. My personal concert-going preference is to hear new work from artists I respect, given that we have the much better original recordings of most of this material, but I suppose that was a bit much to expect, as superstar comeback tours are almost by definition hit parade revues.
Barbra still looks great for a woman who was discouraged by her mother from going into show business because she’s “not pretty.” (Jewish mother syndrome noted.) Her hair is quite long and dyed light these days, and she wore attractive and ungaudy but somewhat low cut evening dresses. She complained just before intermission about the high heels hurting her feet, so in the second half she just kicked them off and did the rest of the show without them. It’s her show, so nobody could blame her. High heels should be outlawed for women anyhow. But that’s another rant. (They should be outlawed for men, too, for somewhat different reasons. Yet another rant.)
A full size orchestra was present, playing from a sunken split pit (or more precisely on the floor surrounded by a raised stage), strings and piano on the left, everyone else on the right, with a runway separating them. The vigorous conductor stood on the left, so could be seen by musicians on both sides. There were at least eighty musicians, and I am told that they constitute a touring orchestra rather than a pick-up group able to play the show in one or two rehearsals. (There is nothing particularly difficult about the arrangements.) It is commendable that the same group travels with the show. It’s extraordinarily expensive to carry that many musicians, with their travel expenses rather than hiring locals, but it adds to the quality of the performance when players who know the music from having played it night after night for a period of time are utilized. Usually when such things are done, corners are cut by reducing the number of string players, to their credit, they didn’t compromise the budget with a reduced string section, which I was happy to see. Having a large orchestra, including full strings, not only improves and balances the sound, but lends additional opulence to the show. If I pay $150, I wanna hear strings, dang it!
The only visual effects to enhance the performance were done with an enormous number of colored spotlights, always acceptably tasteful to the degree that Broadway and Hollywood art can be described that way.
One regrettable feature of the show was Barbara’s accompanying act, a male quartet called Il Divo, which I think is Italian for Four Tenors on Tranquilizers. In my opinion, they totally suck. There, I said it, even though suck is not a very nice term when used in this way. Despite their obvious technical credentials and polish, their overall artistic impact rings false. This group is thoroughly worth making a special effort to avoid hearing.
I would say that I’m surprised that Barbra would even perform with a group like them, given that she exercises absolute control over her shows, but she has not been beyond sinking to the lowest depths in collaboration with other so-called musicians. The utterly execrable movie A Star Is Born, with Kris Kristofferson, is a notable case in point. When I saw this movie on video I had to leave the room halfway through it in order to avoid throwing a beer can at my TV screen.
I’m sure I could find several other examples. Remarkably, this movie soundtrack earned eight Grammy nominations, which says a lot more about the Grammys than about Streisand’s choice of colleagues. “Stupid is as stupid does,” as Gump’s mama liked to say.
I’m sure Il Divo buzzes the drawers of a lot of middle-aged ladies (including possibly even Barbara herself), with their dashing good looks, tuxedos, and accents (a Swissman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and a Coloradan). Their mismatched bellowing voices and accents singing unexciting and overwrought arrangements left me unpositively moved.
The climax of Il Divo’s performance was a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s egomaniacal chest-thumper “My Way.” Frankly speaking, I prefer Sinatra’s way way better. Later they joined Streisand for a version of “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which although again highly Hollywoodized, was somewhat better, thanks partly to Barbra, not to mention that West Side Story is arguably the greatest American musical ever, with every single song a memorable masterpiece.
Whatever people think of Barbra Streisand personally, she remains an outstanding singer and showperson, a person gifted with a great and unique voice, one she has used magnificently at times. Her style is unique among singers. She does subtle technical things with her voice that no one else does, probably because no one else can. I’m not aware of many Streisand imitators — except among certain men who dress up and perform as women; even among them the imitation is more of her persona than her singing.
Barbra has been one of the greatest superstars for over forty years. We’ve all heard her recordings and seen her often horrible movies, so there’s no need to describe here the way Barbra Streisand sings. Everyone in America who does not live under a rock knows the voice, recognizable in an instant.
Streisand’s singing is difficult to classify. Although technically masterful, she is by no means a classical singer. Her carefully sculpted and undeviating lines prevent her from being labeled a jazz singer, nor has she ever claimed to be one. She’s way too good to be lumped with most pop singers, and is no rock and roller either. The closest category that can be assigned is that of American musical theater — a good thing, because it’s in that arena that Streisand has had her greatest artistic success. Her 1992 album Back to Broadway is a masterpiece, one of her best ever — preceded by plenty of mediocre offerings.
Barbra’s voice has mellowed now that she’s over 64 years old. She can still soar with surprising power, but the sound has lost a bit of its sleek, De Lorean stainless steel edge; her intonation, while essentially razor sharp, now suffers slightly along with spontaneous efforts at phrasing and pulling away from the beat; particularly when reaching some high notes, she had to strain a few times, barely making it up to pitch, while in previous years she could have shattered plate glass with a vocal climax. Streisand is not a notably rhythmic singer, but on her recordings her phrasing is usually impeccable. Her diction is without equal among singers, and was in full glory at Thursday’s concert.
Another strong point from Barbra’s days gone by is her phenomenal breath control — her ability to shape long phrases in a broad pitch and dynamic range with utter control in a single breath, not unlike a figure skater slowly working through perfect basic figures. She still has that, but less so, as I caught her taking occasional breaths in awkward places I wouldn’t have expected. The funny thing about it is you notice these differences only when you’ve heard perfection in comparison. A lesser singer could virtually gasp, gag, and growl all the way through a performance, and if that’s what you are used to hearing from that performer, you’ll take it for granted as a part of that person’s “style,” which word is sometimes used as an excuse for a lack of vocal technique.
The show included a bit of labored patter, some of it contrived, obviously created that day for local use (jokes about Camelback mountain and Scottsdale eateries), sounding sometimes overscripted, stiff, and unrehearsed — possibly read for the first time off the teleprompter.
Early in the second half Streisand indulged in political proselytizing under the guise of comedy at the expense of the current American president, an admittedly easy target. This humor was received with a mixture of hoots and polite resignation. Some of the jokes were funny, but the subject matter was uncomfortably not so. It is probably largely because of such excursions that Barbra has earned herself an army of dislikers.
The concert’s play list included almost nothing unfamiliar. Several tunes from Funny Girl were presented, the vehicle that made her famous, along with “The Way We Were”, “Evergreen”, and others even the most casual pop music listener has heard for many years. I’m assuming the one or two tunes I never heard before myself are just songs from long ago that I missed.
The program was not a marathon presentation, but of an appropriate length for a 64-year-old woman. Barbara seemed completely comfortable on stage, having overcome her legendary battle with stage fright, which she explained was caused by fear of forgetting words, something she did on three songs in front of 150,000 people many years ago, but has been conquered with the help of teleprompters.
She was gracious in accepting applause and cheers, seemed genuinely glad to be performing, grateful for her fans, and made her exit before becoming tiresome, while the audience still longed for just a tiny bit more.
Her final curtain call was desecrated by a cameo appearance by none other than Kris Kristofferson, who by coincidence happened to be in town performing the same night, though nobody was quite sure where, nor even cared.