News Column

The Fresno Bee Donald Munro column

November 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 17--Update: Sunday's Jackie Evancho concert, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Saroyan Theatre, has been canceled, according to the Fresno Convention Center website. Ticket holders are expected to be issued refunds. No explanation was given. The singer, who is featured on Sunday's Spotlight cover, has a few other events scheduled in California this month, including a concert Thursday in Thousand Oaks. Additional concert dates, times and venues can be seen at www.JackieEvancho.com.

People love their Jackie.

I know this from the rapturous reception that child singer Jackie Evancho -- who was scheduled to perform tonight at the Saroyan Theatre -- received when she sang last year in Fresno. The audience in February 2012 at the Saroyan didn't just embrace her, mind you. Folks swooned like teens at a Justin Bieber concert.

"We love you, Jackie!" one woman called out from the audience. "I love you, too!" replied the singing sensation, 11 at the time, who soared to fame on "America's Got Talent." The crowd ate it up.

I also know how much people love Evancho, who now has five albums to her name, from the drubbing I received from some fans across the country responding to my subsequent online review, in which I wrote that despite the adoration from the audience, I wasn't dazzled. Her lower range sounded like a little girl trying to sing older than her years, I wrote. She had a very lovely voice, one that sounded far beyond her years, but some of her higher notes, such as in the song "Nella Fantasia," were less pure and resonant than I would have expected. (I was actually a lot less critical than some opera purists, who have sharply critiqued Evancho for phrasing, interpretation and a technique that mimics adult sounds rather than comes across as her own.)

And most controversial: I didn't melt at the little-girl routine. Evancho several times at that concert, for example, sang the final note of a song, then started waving and (to my mind) cooing at the audience even before the orchestra could conclude the last phrase. It was like watching an actor break character after his last line but while still in the scene. I went along with it the first time, charmed at the youthful spontaneity. Then rolled at my eyes at times two, three and four.

To me it smacked of an adult telling her specifically beforehand, "Do this. The audience will eat it up."

A gentleman named Rick was not impressed with my take.

"Too bad you didn't connect with her, because there are literally millions around the world that do connect with her," he wrote. "For you to 'not connect' is your loss. One more thing -- Jackie Evancho has the most pure and resonant voice of any female vocalist alive today, and she will go on to become the greatest female vocalist ever."

Rick and I might not see eye to eye on Evancho's potential, at least according to what I heard at that Fresno concert. But I do appreciate what he had to say about the idea of artists connecting. As the young singer, now 13, returns to the Saroyan tonight (with top tickets commanding $129.75, what you'd expect to pay for the great opera singers of our time), it's interesting to reflect on what makes a "success" in the classical music world -- or at least in what some would term the classical crossover music world.

A human connection with an audience is key. But upon what is that connection based? Is it built just on the virtuosity and talent of a musician? The emotion with which a performance is delivered? The pronouncements of the "experts," who proclaim the criteria on which great musicians should be judged? The self-fulfilling prophecy that if so many other people are wild about a performer, he or she must be good? Or perhaps just the sheer power of marketing?

To prepare for this column, I spoke with three well-known musicians in the Fresno area about the Evancho concert. I wanted to discuss with them the divide between "experts" and audiences when it comes to some of the big classical crossover artists who have come to the city recently, such as the Italian pop opera group Il Volo and the Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins.

I chatted with the three -- Theodore Kuchar, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic; Anthony Radford, director of the opera program at Fresno State; and Thomas Loewenheim, conductor of the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra -- not for the purpose of bashing such artists as Evancho, but to get a better handle on why the divide occurs in the first place.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that there's no objective "scoresheet" out there that can qualify a musician as great. And there never has been.

"The theme of the ages is who says what is art: Who sets the taste?" Radford says. "Back in the day, it was whoever the ruler was. Whatever he liked, you liked. In our society today, it's whoever sells tickets."

Loewenheim puts it diplomatically: "Different things can be great for different audiences for different reasons," he says.

There's always been a disconnect between popular and critical opinion in classical music, even when you go back as far as medieval Catholicism and the conflict between what was acceptable within the church and what was going on "outside." Sometimes it has to do with changes in tastes -- with the old guard vs. the new. The 19th century composer Georges Bizet was in one famous instance ravaged by critics.

"They tried to bury him," Radford says. "But 'Carmen' was too good. People wanted it."

It's also nothing new to have a musician lauded by audiences for reasons that go beyond sheer technical skill.

An example: Niccolo Paganini was famed as a violin virtuoso in the 19th century. But along with his celebrated technique, his larger-than-life personality also was a major reason he had staying power with the public.

"We still know his name today," Kuchar says. "Why? Because he was a carousing Casanova. He not only possessed the skill, but he had a household name."

Kuchar points to two prominent contemporary names -- both of whom have attracted adoring crowds in Fresno over the years -- that illustrate the divide between musical elites and the masses better than any.

One is Andrea Bocelli, and the other is orchestra conductor Andre Rieu.

Yes, Bocelli has recorded the Verdi Requiem and various operatic arias. But his is a "crossover" act -- what used to be labeled in the classical music world as "pops."

"Nobody pretends that his is a major voice," Kuchar says.

Rieu, meanwhile, "is not at all considered to be a violinist on the level of anyone the Philharmonic has brought in as guest artists," he says. "It's the show. It's how it's built up."

Yet, talk to the scores of Bocelli and Rieu fans out there. They leave their concerts ecstatic, and they'd likely scoff at Kuchar's take.

Whoever the musician, however, the reality is that we're talking about two things here: the actual music, and the whole musical "package." Realistically, you need both to make it big. There are lots of fabulous musicians (and artists, actors, painters, you name it) spread across this big world of ours at any given time. Only a tiny fraction of those can break through to worldwide -- or even national -- recognition as professionals.

To make it as a professional musician today, it isn't enough just to have a manager, Kuchar says. You need a publicist. Preferably more than one. "A lot of these people have big machines behind them," he says. "They're unstoppable."

In today's crossover classical music world, PBS can be a potent force, with the network replaying concerts by such performers as Evancho, Il Volo and Bocelli on a regular basis.

Just what goes into a musician's overall "package"? Beyond the music itself, think about any personality brand these days. Great looks never hurt. A fashion style is always a plus. An engaging personality, or at least a memorable one, is important. So is a strong personal narrative.

For Evancho, of course, that narrative involves her age. In the many comments posted on my review of her last Fresno concert, a common theme is that she has the "voice of an angel."

Child prodigies have long had a special draw in the musical world. Mozart, who started composing at age 5, is perhaps the most famous.

Prodigies are often associated with "divine" gifts, Radford notes. He himself was a choirboy, and he points to the accoutrements of that role -- the white ruffs around the necks, the angelic costumes -- that speak to purity and wholesomeness.

Kuchar says one of the most successful modern-day prodigies was violinist Sarah Chang, whom he called "the greatest student that ever existed." She was a triumph as a 9-year-old, and she has retained her star power into her 30s. (Kuchar will next work with her in January when she returns to play with the Fresno Philharmonic at its 60th anniversary gala concert -- so you could say that working her into this conversation is a deft marketing move on his part.)

For many, Evancho's youth is an obvious draw among her fans.

"Yes, she has a very beautiful voice and a recognizable talent," a commenter named Carlos wrote on my 2012 Evancho review, "but what makes her really extraordinary is that at only 11 years old she has the confidence to sing for the President of the U.S. not once but twice, as well as to sing the the Emperor's family in Japan. Regardless of what you may think about her technique she can connect to people in the highest as well as the lowest of places, and she does it with confidence and humility. That is without a doubt her greatest gift."

For Evancho's fans, image means a great deal. They adore the fact she remains a sweet, wholesome girl in performance. In an age in which so many 13-year-olds on stage and screen dress and act much older than their years, Evancho is a reminder of the appeal of childhood innocence.

In terms of Evancho's musical talents -- which are very impressive for one so young -- and her ability to fill concert halls, all three of the local musicians I talked to for this column wanted to tread lightly. Who wants to be too hard on an adorable 13-year-old girl?

In general terms, as a voice scholar and teacher, Radford is impressed by young talent, but he doesn't have much personal interest in hearing young singers perform repertoire beyond their years. When a young singer delivers an aria speaking of love and loss, for example, it doesn't have any emotional resonance with him, he says.

"I don't identify with seeing a 12-year-old emote," he says. "I don't know that they know anything about life, which is why I go to the opera."

Yet Evancho isn't the only one to take the "opera out of opera," so to speak. Disassociating all vestiges of an aria's original meaning or style is all the rage these days, writes Washington Post classical critic Anne Midgette in an October blog post. She calls the trend "crossover pseudo-operatic sound."

"In the popular imagination, opera arias have become a vehicle for all that is moving and beautiful -- as long as they're not sung in an opera house," she writes. "People who would go to some lengths to avoid attending a performance of Puccini's "Turandot" or "Gianni Schicchi" fall all over themselves at the arias "Nessun dorma" (now an obligatory vehicle for all male singers, and some female ones) and "O mio babbino caro" (which fulfills the same role for young sopranos)."

At age 13, Evancho already has sold more tickets (and albums) than most performers would ever dream of in a lifetime. And there's no denying the joy she brings her fans, many of whom follow her career online and predict that she will blossom into her teenage years and beyond, remaining a major classical crossover star.

Even among acclaimed musical prodigies, Kuchar says, only a very few go on to superstar status as adults, however.

There's a lot of talent out there. And a lot of viral enthusiasm. The subject of Midgette's recent Washington Post blog wasn't actually Evancho, but the newest Internet sensation: a Dutch singer named Amira Willighagen, who on the TV show Holland's Got Talent' sang "O mio babbino caro."

She's 9 years old.

IF YOU GO

Jackie Evancho in concert, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., tickets: ticketmaster.com, $49.75-$129.75.

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(c)2013 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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