Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review of "Ombra mai fu" MP3 by Jackie Evancho

For me, the first time I heard Jacqueline Marie Evancho sing was like my first scuba dive in Indonesia.

Before I heard Ms. Evancho, I’d heard thousands upon thousands of singers, singing everything from opera arias to Tahitian war chants to headbanging rock & roll to Jazz standards to avant-garde music that didn’t even have a melody to bluegrass to country to Black gospel to Argentine tango to rap to everything you see on MTV today to…well, you get the picture. I’ve been around, musically speaking.

Likewise with scuba diving. Before Indonesia I’d gone on hundreds of dives around California, Canada, the Sea of Cortez, the Caribbean, Hawaii.

But all this experience didn’t fully prepare me for Indonesia. On our first dive there, near Bali, I backrolled out of the boat, waited for my wife to join me, and then we descended into a coral reef universe with so many—and so many kinds of—fish, coral, critters, in all the colors of the rainbow and more—that I was overwhelmed. And even now, 12 years after that first dive, I’m still overwhelmed by diving there.

Same goes for Jackie Evancho. For me, as a veteran diver and veteran music lover, she is my Indonesian coral reef—a neverending source of awe and profound joy.

In this review, I’ll explain why many people are entranced by Ms. Evancho—both as a performer and as a human being; why some others are not; how to listen to her singing; what her performance of this particular song means; and what this song means as a guide to whether you should buy the album it’s part of.

Ms. Evancho defines herself as a “classical crossover” singer. Other CC singers include Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, and Sarah Brightman. CC performers choose music from the worlds of pop, classical, folk and other genres, but always sing it a “classical” manner. Not operatic—classical. There’s a big difference.

Opera singers are trained to make themselves heard over a pit orchestra, all the way to the folks in the nosebleed seats. The techniques needed to do so give their voices a sort of trumpet-like quality that opera lovers love. I love it myself, but that’s not what Ms. Evancho sounds like even when she’s singing opera arias. She always performs with a microphone, enabling her to sing with a more intimate kind of sound. I love that too.

Which is part of why those who are entranced by her singing get drawn to it—she always sounds like she’s singing to you personally. This sense of emotional connection between you, the song, and her, is something many singers, however skilled, can’t seem to achieve. Often it’s because they embellish their singing so much it draws attention from the song to them—as if the lyrics are “Look at me singing! Aren’t I great?” Ms. Evancho never does that. She’s possessed by the music, not the other way around.

What she does do is draw people to her music—even people who don’t normally listen to classical crossover—even some who don’t even listen to music normally. Disabled vets have said that the only time they aren’t in pain is when they’re listening to her. Her effect can be that powerful. At the same time music lovers like me marvel at her richness of tone, perfect phrasing, refined use of portamento, subtle passagio, perfect vibrato, and effortless, soaring high notes.

Phrasing is the difference between a metronome and a storyteller. Frank Sinatra is a master of phrasing. He and Ms. Evancho never sacrifice the meaning of what they’re singing to a steady beat. They both use little hesitations and advances and fermatas (holding notes) to ensure that the poetry gets its voice.

Portamento is those little embellishments that are so annoying when American Idol singers overdo it, or when people without great pitch sense use it to pretend they’re being stylish when in fact they’re using it search around for their high notes.

Passagio is the shift between different kinds of voice as you go from low to high and back. Yodeling is exaggerated passagio, and charming then; it’s also used by great pop singers like Sarah McLachlan. But normally—and especially in classical music—you want it to be seamless, and that’s what Ms. Evancho delivers. She has some of the best passagio in the business.

Vibrato is that shimmering effect you hear as a voice ripples up and down quickly but not too quickly. Skilled string players achieve a similar effect on violins, cellos etc.—you see their fingers wiggling as they touch the strings on the instrument’s neck to get the effect.

And those high notes are what mark a great soprano. Never screechy, never sounding like they just stepped on a cat. Instead, the effect of looking up and seeing a seagull floating in the sky far above you.

But what really matters is that Ms. Evancho uses all these tools of her trade in the service of carrying you off with her into a soundscape that evokes our deepest feelings. As with all great performing artists, you don’t see the years of relentless work she’s poured into honing her craft. You just get the result.

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s an admirable human being as well—possessed of towering ambition and drive, yet at the same time devoted to family and friends, unfailingly thoughtful and polite in interviews, and a Humane Society spokesperson on behalf of decent treatment for animals. She believes she has a gift—and does she ever—but she also believes that such a gift carries responsibilities with it. She’s too grounded to play the diva and live in a bubble of sycophants.

Yet despite her talent and personal rectitude, she has detractors, some of whom felt the need to put their two cents’ worth in this review thread.

The detractors are easy to understand, and fall into several groups. But all of them suffer from being prisoners of their categories. That is, Ms. Evancho’s existence challenges the framework these people use to navigate their way through life. However, instead of changing their framework to accommodate her reality, they deny that she is who she is.

And who she is…is an interpretive genius. I’m not being hyperbolic. I founded the gifted student program at a public school I taught at a long time ago, and I’ve come to recognize genius when I see it. And I know that a lot of people can’t handle genius—they have to explain it away, attribute it to environment or training…anything to avoid the fact that we are not born the same.

Nor are geniuses. Her teachers say she’s intelligent, but she isn’t necessarily an actual genius at anything besides singing. That’s where she’s revealed it, and if you look at the YouTube videos of her earlier performances, you can see this at work even when she was just eight years old, singing “O mio Babbino caro” acapella in her living room.

Note that this is the first time I’ve referred to her age. She turned 11 in April. This leads many to categorize her as a child singer, or a child soprano.

She is not. She’s a vocalist who is a child, but she is not a child vocalist. This is not semantics. Her fans are not, by and large, fans of the category “child singers.” She hasn’t sounded like a child singing since about midway through her 10th year.

I’ve actually tried this on friends who haven’t heard of her. I’ll play an MP3 with no visuals and ask them to describe her. One said she sounded like the Greek chanteuse Nana Mouskouri when she was in her 30s. That’s a typical response.

Moreover, Ms. Evancho doesn’t consider herself a “child singer.” She sees herself as competing with her peers—Josh Groban and the like—and to be judged by the same standards you’d use to judge any other vocalist.

I said she had towering ambition. Lucky for her, she has talent to match.

One of the more amusing kinds of naysayers are the ones who say “she’s good…for a child. I’ll wait until she’s mature.” These are people who hear what they think—that is, the actual sound reaching their ears goes through a “category filter” so that what reaches their mind fits their biases.

The forums for Ms. Evancho include a fair number of musical sophisticates, and articles about her include a fair number of university voice teachers and the like who all agree that she has a sound and a talent that perhaps comes along once every 50 years or longer.

One of those giving her faint praise said one should look for perfection elsewhere. But then he made it clear that what he meant by “perfection” was “absence of errors.” This is a shallow definition. And it’s why beauty contest winners are so often kind of boring looking, while famous actresses almost never look like beauty contest winners. If you’re a man, who would you rather look at—Scarlett Johansson or Miss Nebraska? See?

That’s because real perfection has little to do with “absence of mistakes.” It has to do with the kind of magic—the passion, the intensity, the ability to connect with people—that only a few have. Ms. Evancho is one of them.

The most offensive of the naysayers are the ones who can’t believe that Ms. Evancho is doing what she wants to do. They accuse her parents of child abuse and her voice coaches of sacrificing her voice for quick fame. This would be serious if it had an iota of truth to it, but in fact her parents, if anything, are holding her back some, trying to give her some childhood in between performances. And her parents and voice coaches have mandated that she only do songs that won’t hurt her voice, and in a manner that won’t hurt it.

Such naysayers can’t grasp how different Ms. Evancho is from the 11 year olds they know. She is living the life she wants to live. Telling her to play with Barbies and sing “Mary had a little lamb”—now that would be child abuse where she’s concerned. And probably sexist to boot. Would they have said the same thing to Mozart when he was 11 and already composing symphonies and performing around Europe?

Another type of Jackie naysayer is people who identify with a type of music as representing them tribally—and feeling that liking anything else is tribal treason. For some who are young and see themselves as ‘not my parents,” if the singer isn’t on MTV they’re out. That was the problem with the critical reviewer here who said Ms. Evancho’s music was boring and all the same. What he was really saying was “if it’s not rock and roll fuggedaboudit.” Opera snobs may say the same. Some of them are aghast that she sings arias meant for men, or sings arias at all—or if she does, they want her to sing innocuous ones.

They don’t realize how serious an artist Ms. Evancho is. She does some light stuff—such as “When you wish upon a star” but even then she infuses it with a depth I certainly never knew was there to be mined.

In the case of this song, “Ombra mai fu,” you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want to know what the lyrics say and what it’s from. I have. But I don’t think that’s necessary. What’s important is right there—its gravitas, the way Ms. Evancho infuses is with such banked passion, proving once more that a whisper can be louder than a shout.

One faint-praising reviewer mentioned how Ms. Evancho couldn’t do the requisite trills yet, and faulted her for it. I’ve heard this aria many times, usually with the trills (Cecilia Bartoli is a great example of doing it the traditional way). But honestly I prefer the sparer, cleaner rendition Ms. Evancho gives it. I believe her version has the most oomph, actually.

Also, notice how the introduction goes on for quite a while, pauses, and then the singer has to hit her rather high starting note out of nowhere. And Ms. Evancho punches it, demonstrating her acute pitch sense and the rich, buttery tone she achieves even in the high soprano sky.

As for how to listen to her singing—I think you’ll gather by now it’s to listen to it as a voice without reference to the age of the person producing that voice.

And finally, as a guide to whether to buy the CD…this is the most classical-sounding cut on the CD. The most pop-sounding one is “Angel,” which you can hear at lower fidelity on YouTube. For this album I’d say “Angel” is more representative of the album overall than “Ombra mai fu.” Only a few of the songs, like the latter, are totally classical. Whereas more are drawn from the pop world—though she still performs them classically.

Thus if you listen to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” it’s a lot more country-sounding, full of yodeling passagios and if I recall right a pedal steel in the background. Ms. Evancho performs it in a more straight-ahead fashion. I’m not saying either is superior—for me they’re so distinct I ‘m glad both renditions exist.

Whereas with “Ombra mai fu” I now just want to listen to Jackie’s version, which for me has set the standard for this piece.

Ms. Evancho is, at the age of 11, one of world’s leading interpreters of classical crossover music. She doesn’t do jazz, or blues, or gospel, or Japanese folk songs for that matter. So it’s not like I don’t listen to anything else, because I love everything else. But for the kind of classical-sounding, quietly passionate, aspirational/yearning music Ms. Evancho specializes in at present—there’s none I’d rather listen to.

I’ve already pre-ordered the CD. I strongly recommend that you do so as well.