BWW Features: Kennedy Center Celebrates Diversity of Music with AMERICAN VOICES Festival; Features Foster, Bareilles, Folds, and More
There's something rather unique about having the opportunity to experience the eclectic nature of the American music scene in a matter of three days. This past weekend, opera diva Renée Fleming hosted a one-of-a-kind extravaganza at the renowned Kennedy Center that showcased the best of American music talent, upcoming artists, and allowed those in the business and those that follow it to address issues of contemporary importance.
The center piece of this American Voices event was an all-star concert that featured not only the unrivaled National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the versatile Stephen Reineke, and Fleming herself, but a variety of other artists at the top of their musical games. These included accomplished singer-songwriters Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds, Broadway stars Sutton Foster and Norm Lewis, pop/classical pop sensation Josh Groban, jazz artist Dianne Reeves, classical bass-baritone Eric Owens, country singer Allison Krauss, gospel artist Kim Burrell, and two up-and-coming jazz wonders replacing an ailing Kurt Elling.
BroadwayWorld readers can find my review of this concert on DC Theatre Scene: http://dctheatrescene.com/2013/11/25/american-voices-star-concert-kennedy-center/
As special as the concert was - featuring particularly spectacular performances by Bareilles, Fleming, and Folds - the entire festival was especially rewarding and unparalleled when one factors in the attention paid to ensuring the strong American music tradition lives on.
In particular, a series of genre-specific master sessions allowed many of these well-respected artists to mentor, encourage, and coach pre-selected young artists who aspire to be nothing more than their best musical selves. Added to that experience was the great fortune of the general public being able to observe the talent at work in the genres they know best in a 'not-really-a-performance' kind of environment.
Along that vein, I had the great opportunity to attend the pop/rock master session featuring the critically acclaimed musicians Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds and the musical theatre session featuring two-time Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster. Both effectively leveraged local musician Jonathan Tuzman as an accompanist.
Foster has made something of a second career of encouraging young talent at universities and other institutions promoting musical theatre education. Bareilles and Folds, on the other hand, stood ready to take on the challenge of providing helpful feedback to young artists in a master session environment for (what they self-admitted to be) the first time.
Folds and Bareilles, well-practiced with judging young talent following a stint on the televised a cappella singing competition The Sing-Off, took a different, less rigorous approach to their master session than Ms. Foster. Yet, in every case the recognized artists did their best to provide helpful, professional advice to the aspiring talent in an encouraging way - approaching each as an artist in and of themselves.
Pop pianist/singer Jake Ohlbaum, vocal technician and R&B influenced Liisi Lafontaine, unique rocker Nina Grollman, and accomplished soulful pop singer Lara Johnston all had a chance to show their wares to Bareilles and Folds. Covering everything from a familiar Billy Joel tune, a lesser known Christina Aguilera song, a Radiohead hit, and a jazz/pop song made famous by both Etta James and Beyoncé, they showed a willingness to improve not only the way they approached the song, play with dynamics, and interpret the lyrics.
Easy-going Bareilles and Folds - showing quite a bit of natural charm and solid rapport with one another - provided them with an array of useful feedback. This feedback allowed them to better get to the heart and intent of the song, make it their own, and not become too stuck in doing a particular song in a particular way every time. The young artists' second attempt at a portion of or the entirety of a particular song - following feedback that varied from artist to artist - allowed them to put Bareilles' and Folds' advice to good work.