The only explanation for the magnificence that graced The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Concert Hall on Saturday evening is that National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Pops conductor Steven Reineke and legendary soprano Renée Fleming came together one day and asked themselves, “How much talent can we possibly pack on a single stage in one performance? The result was nothing short of incredible.
Culminating the three day American Voices festival at The Kennedy Center—which featured master classes by Tony-Award winning performer Sutton Foster and gospel diva Kim Burrell among others—Renée Fleming hosted a incredible two-hour long all-star concert featuring Sara Bareilles, Kim Burrell, Ben Folds, Sutton Foster, Josh Groban, Alison Krauss, Norm Lewis, Eric Owens, Dianne Reeves, and more alongside the dazzling NSO Pops, under the direction of Steven Reineke.
The American Voices series strives to celebrate the past, present, and future of singing in America, and there can be perhaps no better showcase of the power of the human voice than the vast array of performers that graced The Kennedy Center stage during the American Voices concert Saturday evening.
The night opened with country/bluegrass star Alison Krauss singing “How Can I Keep from Singing,” the “overture” – if you will for the evening – which transitioned, after brief remarks from Fleming, into a luscious and textured rendition of “Smile” from pop star Josh Groban.
Groban, who is widely known for singles including “You Raise Me Up” and “You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up),” shared a stirring performance that reminds us why he is one of the number-one best selling artists in the United States. His vocals convey a sense of earnestness that can only be shared via song.
The next segment of the evening featured the evolution of Broadway musicals. Opera singer Eric Owens first took the stage with “O tu Palermo” from I vespri Siciliani—which was an attempt to show some of the European roots of the modern-day Broadway musical. While perhaps a bit contrived, what this portion of the evening did convey was the tenacity of live opera performance and how an opera singer, even without a microphone, can fill a concert hall with robust and rich sound.
No Broadway segment would be complete without some rousing power ballads or a dance number, and, perfectly on cue, Broadway stars Norm Lewis and Sutton Foster took to the stage with “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime and the title song from Anything Goes (minus the tap dancing) respectively. For the Broadway fans in the audience, this was an incredible showcase of thrill of live musical theatre performance. One particular audience member who was sitting directly behind me also seemed to agree; that man was Stephen Schwartz, the composer of legendary Broadway musicals including Wicked, Godspell, and Pippin.
Renée Fleming then took to the stage to perform “Danny Boy”—which was a pleasant change of pace from the previous segment. Fleming showed just why she was a Grammy Award-winning opera singer, performing the Irish ballad in a way that rejuvenated the classic song as if hearing it for the first time. It was an eye-opening experience in how even the same song can take on an entirely new meaning and feel when performed and interpreted by an independent artist.
The focus then shifted to gospel music. Eric Owens performed a stirring a capella version of “Deep River,” followed by gospel diva Kim Burrell performing “A Change is Gonna Come,” ending the first act. After a brief intermission, Burrell then came on to open the second act with “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Burrell’s performance underscored her unique vocal style—something of a mix between jazz and gospel—which was appropriate for the event as it celebrates the future of song. She has been called “this generation’s Ella Fitzgerald,” and she certainly lived up to that high-acclaim with her well-tempered vibrato and enough riffs to keep the audience engaged in each vocal turn.
Afterwards, the focus then shifted to jazz music. While Kurt Elling was originally scheduled to make an appearance, Fleming announced that he had been diagnosed with laryngitis; instead, two students came on and performed the jazz numbers “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart” and “Throw Away the Key” (Kate Davis) and the jazz standard “All of Me” (Michael Mayo). Surprisingly, these relative amateurs stood their ground and earned themselves a rightful spot alongside some of the world’s greatest performers. Closing out the jazz portion of the evening was jazz veteran Dianne Reeves, who performed “When You Know” from her 2008 studio album of the same name.
Finally, Sara Bareilles highlighted some of the hardships of the music industry industry with the Elton John classic “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”—which was, by far, my favorite performance of the evening. A relatively new songwriter, Bareilles played the piano while singing, which created an intimate feel that was refreshing in an otherwise grandiose venue. Her poise and the precision and intentionality with which she hit each note was not only beautiful to listen to, but also solidified her rightful spot alongside the veterans of the music industry on stage that night. Singer/songwriter Ben Folds then joined her with “I’m Not the Man,” and continued with “Not the Same,” which involved a bit of tongue-in-cheek audience participation. To close the evening, the group came on and performed an encore “I Was Here,” a song originally recorded by American R&B recording artist Beyoncé Knowles.
The core message of the evening was that the human voice is an instrument that must be cherished, and is itself a universal language that can adapt to myriad themes, time frames, and moods. As Fleming put it, the song can pique our deepest emotions and completely transcend the ordinary bounds of intellect or reason, and, for that, it must be cherished and prized—and perhaps no venue does this better than The Kennedy Center itself.
American Voices Concert with the National Symphony Orchestra played for one night only on November 23, 2013, at 8 PM at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall — 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For future event, go to their Calendar of Events.