What a wonderful program for this weekend’s pair of concerts by the Niagara Symphony. Special guest Carol Welsman came to town impressively decked out with impressive pipes, her personal quartet and a stack of James Dale arrangements that celebrated some of best female warblers and “scatologists” of the Swing Era.
I attended Sunday’s two-set performance and was delighted to see the sold-out Sean O’Sullivan Theatre nearly full, which dramatically underlined the ability of the arts to outdraw the Olympics when faced with the choice of millionaires squabbling for global attention or all that jazz. Mind you, the arranger’s banishment of the second oboe and both bassoons probably provided those “missing” subscribers with some musical company!
The afternoon got off to a fine start with NSA’s principal clarinet, Zoltán Kalman, admirably demonstrating his comfort on both sides of the street in the classic "Birth of the Blues." As she demonstrated throughout the show, conductor Laura Thomas led a steady, accurate and supportive band; under her care, things moved well—there was never a doubt. "Body and Soul" completed the mood setting.
Once on stage, Welsman proved an experienced and affable host/star. Her patter was quaint but unobtrusive, leading us easily through her tribute to the great voices of a bygone era. The quartet (Mark Eisenman, piano; Bill Holinaty, tenor sax and flute, Davide DiRenzo drums; George Koller bass) occupied the front of the stage; all were mic’d to ensure balance with their leader. As the arrangements unfolded, I found myself wishing that the orchestra—particularly the strings—also had the benefit of electronic reinforcement: even a stereo pair. For, while the total number of players could well have been used for a studio date, it was unfair competition for balance and blend as they valiantly sailed through the charts. But, on with the show!
Welsman’s voice is supple, controlled and flexible. Her scat skills—first demonstrated in the tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, which included "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" and a medley with the quartet (bringing back fond memories of Cleo Laine at the O’Keefe Centre, years ago)—are excellent and she has the chops to dash off the “words” with aplomb (“dubbity, foubitty bop!”).
She’s no slouch in the ballad department either as witnessed by her convincing rendition of Billie Holiday’s famed “God Bless the Child.”
I was particularly taken with Michel Legrand’s haunting “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” Here, the unison violins produced the most glorious sound thus far. What a pleasure to hear them soar and scale the heights together. Welsman—inspired—responded in kind but I began noticing a certain lack of finish to her phrases and hoped for wider drama in the changes of registers. But performing the songs of such vocal giants makes comparisons difficult at best.
Throughout the first half, Holinaty’s tenor solos were loose and fun, adding great contrast to the smooth and cool that surrounded us.
Set 2 kicked off with a filler—“You Are the Sunshine of My Life”—that seemed entirely out of place with the mood and content of the concert.
But in Dinah Washington’s hit “Never Let Me Go,” something magical happened.
Welsman took the piano herself and delivered the most moving, beautifully stated song of the show. She seemed so at home at the keyboard, much more involved and was wonderfully supported through DiRenzo’s brilliant survey of his cymbals’ colours and double bassist Koller’s impeccable style, control and creativity. The orchestra (excused from this and several other arrangements entirely) must have also sensed the change as the remainder of the program moved up several notches: we were all glad to be in the room to share those timeless songs.
Welsman kept us dutifully informed of Team Canada’s quest, but in my mind the afternoon’s musical gold went to Koller, who slapped, walked and even bongoed his instrument keeping the entire show moving confidently ahead while never overstating his tasteful contributions.
The warm applause for the heartening rendition of “Over the Rainbow” was rewarded with two encores, which hilariously concluded with the completely appropriate “Do It Again” after “scattering” with the rabbits in the relentless “Cottontail.” JWR