Broadway show tunes? Go figure

Review: When James Taylor sings with the Baltimore Symphony, you expect lush accompaniments to his classics, not `My Fair Lady.' Yet, there it is, and well done, too.

October 08, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Rock and roll doesn't often make itself at home at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- particularly not when the Baltimore Symphony is in residence. But after hearing the orchestra perform with legendary singer/songwriter James Taylor Wednesday night, it was hard not to wish that rock were a more regular visitor.

Not that the Taylor concert was a rock show in the traditional sense. Yes, there were guitar, bass and drums, but the guitar was acoustic and the other two instruments tastefully understated, with no massive amplifier stacks obscuring the viola section. This wasn't Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony, after all.

Nor was it a typical James Taylor show. Although the black-clad pop star performed a number of his best-known songs, including "Fire and Rain," "Carolina In My Mind," and "Country Road," his hits comprised only a portion of the entertainment, as he took advantage of the orchestral accompaniment to delve into the musical theater repertoire.

Taylor, it turns out, grew up on show tunes. As he told the audience at the Meyerhoff, his family played the original cast recording of "My Fair Lady" so frequently that, he joked, "The music became part of my genetic makeup. My kids can sing all the songs from the show -- and they've never heard it!"

After that introduction, Taylor offered his interpretation of the Henry Higgins number, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." To his credit, whatever genetic encoding he might have endured as a child didn't leave him sounding like a second-generation Rex Harrison. Instead, he offered an assured and distinctive reading of the song, self-mocking enough to stay in the spirit of the show, yet putting a sly, pop-savvy spin on the melody.

Taylor's take on Broadway standards was in many ways the most interesting aspect of the concert. Although he made much of his easy-going sense of swing, Taylor didn't approach the songs as a jazz singer might, laying back off the beat or elasticizing the phrases. Instead, his phrasing was crisp and tart, emphasizing the melodic shape and dramatic weight of each phrase. That lent a brisk elegance to his reading of "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and infusing "Love Is Here to Stay" with an effortless charm.

When working with the show tunes, Taylor and his quartet deferred to the orchestra, letting the classic flavor of the songs shine through (the lush orchestration of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" was particularly affecting). But when the program shifted to Taylor's tunes, so did the instrumental balance, with guitar, drums and bass taking equal weight against the orchestra.

In some cases -- "Secret O' Life," for instance, or "Enough to Be on Your Way" -- the focus on Taylor and band left the BSO functioning almost as instrumental sweetening. Granted, it would be hard to imagine how the orchestra could have added anything to something as simple and effective as the gospel-flavored approach Taylor's band brought to "Country Road," particularly when the arrangement boiled down to just the singer working against drummer Steve Gadd's infectious backbeat.

But there were also moments when the orchestrations added immensely to the music. "Valentine's Day," for instance, was outfitted with an arrangement as rich and colorful as the lyric is wry and allusive, while "Millwork," in its orchestral setting, seemed as detailed and evocative as a Norman Rockwell painting. Even the traditional tune "The Water Is Wide" took on new depth thanks to the additional instrumentation.

Conductor David Allen Miller deserves credit for much of that extra oomph, as he marshaled the unusually large ensemble with ease. His reading of the concert's only true classical selection, Virgil Thomson's coloristic "Prelude and Pastoral from `The Plow That Broke the Plains,' " was particularly impressive, bringing an exquisite transparency to the densely populated score.

James Taylor performs again with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at 8 tonight and tomorrow night at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Call: (410) 783-8000.

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