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July 14, 2003

In a red dress

I hear there are places to live that are almost as much fun as New York City, but I wouldn't know--I live here, and I'm not going anywhere.

One reason why I'm sticking is that last Thursday, Luciana Souza sang with the New York Philharmonic on the Great Lawn of Central Park, just a five-minute walk from my front door, before a crowd of...oh, I don't know, maybe two or three million. It sure looked that big from where I was sitting, anyway. (Allan Kozinn guessed 50,000 in the New York Times, but who's counting?) In any case, Souza ought to be singing in front of multitudes, because she's the most exciting jazz singer I've run across in ages. The catch, if you want to call it that, is that she isn't really a jazz singer, or at least not quite exactly one. Souza, who now lives in New York, comes from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and her style is a rich, volatile brew of Brazilian pop and American jazz, impossible to categorize and irresistible to hear.

So what in the world was she singing with the New York Philharmonic? Why, Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo, of course, a wonderfully subtle exercise in Spanish local color with a part for a mezzo-soprano with peasant blood in her veins. Most classically trained mezzos make it sound too formal, or--worse yet--like a caricature of flamenco. Not Souza. Her singing, at once coolly poised and earthy, with a chesty vibrato that grabs you by the heart and squeezes, is the voice Falla must have heard in his dreams. Yes, she uses a microphone, meaning that prissy purists will want nothing to do with her (though she couldn't very well have sung in Central Park without one), but I'm the furthest thing from a purist, and I doubt there's been a performance quite like this one since Argentinita recorded the piece with Antal Dorati and the Ballet Theatre Orchestra for Decca back in the Forties (and why, pray tell, has that performance never been reissued on CD?). Souza performed El amor brujo earlier this year with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, and if somebody doesn't haul the lot of them into a studio right away, somebody is dumb.

Should Falla strike you as excessively fancy fare for an outdoor pops concert, I can only say that the New York Philharmonic has been known to pull some fast ones in Central Park. A couple of years ago, for example, Audra McDonald sang the Brecht-Weill Seven Deadly Sins outdoors with the Philharmonic (in the W.H. Auden-Chester Kallman English-language version, thank you very much). I was there, agog and then some, which gives me an excuse to mention McDonald and Souza in the same breath. Even though they don't sound a bit alike, they still have a lot in common, for neither one of them loses any sleep worrying about labels--instead, they sing whatever they want and make you like it. To call them "crossover" artists is to trivialize their boundless curiosity and resourcefulness. I think of them as citizens of the musical world, at home wherever they go, be it concert hall or cabaret or the great outdoors.

I had my fingers crossed all afternoon, checking the weather every couple of hours and wondering when the skies would fall. Instead, the temperature fell, and by the time I got to my seat it was preposterously balmy. The gnats were out in force, flying in funnel-cloud formation with orders to kill, but they picked a new target at intermission and left the rest of us to enjoy the sunset. Stretched out at the rear of the Great Lawn was the midtown skyline, bouncing light off the low-lying clouds, with the Chrysler Building peeping between the high-rises on Central Park South like a six-year-old boy trying to push his way through a crowd of six-foot-tall grownups in order to see the passing parade a little better. The surrounding sky was grayish-purple, and the effect was so exquisite that I would have been perfectly happy to turn my folding chair around and face the wrong way all night long, except that I wouldn't have been able to see Souza's spectacular rust-red-to-die-for dress.

Did I mention that the Gruccis were kind enough to set off fireworks as an encore, accompanied by a parkful of oohs and aahs? I felt as if I were looking at the biggest painting in the universe. (This one, to be exact.) And all for free!

Yes, it was disgustingly humid all week long, the orchestra needed another rehearsal, and I won't be surprised if I have a nightmare or two about those gnats...and none of it mattered one tiny bit. Nights like this are why you live in a preshrunk apartment and pay outrageous rent and grope around to make sure your wallet's still there every time you get off a crowded subway car. Feel free to remind me the next time you catch me griping about New York.

Posted July 14, 2003 12:06 PM

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