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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:

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.

Ben Folds, Maestro Steven Reineke and Sara Bareilles (Photo: by Scott Suchman)

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.

Though relatively new to the master session world, I appreciated Bareilles' and Folds' apparent, authentic interest in what they were doing and attention to treating each artist as an individual as they sat on stage listening to their talents. They proved to be naturals at honing in on areas that might be improved based on their wealth of experience.

Sutton Foster's relaxed yet focused and well-honed approach to coaching local musical theatre university student Nicole Elledge, Northwestern student Betsy Stewart, polished Julliard student Miles Mykkanen, and University of Michigan's Isabelle McCalla demonstrated that she clearly knows how to get the best out of young theatre talent eager to make it to Broadway. As she watched from the audience - after getting to know each of the students as individuals a little bit - the young talent each tackled one or (in one particular case) two songs.

Whether they explored Kander and Ebb's "Willing to Ride" (Steel Pier), Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" (South Pacific), Bernstein's and Sondheim's "Something's Coming" (West Side Story), Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat" (Sunday in the Park with George), or Kander and Ebb's "Colored Lights" (The Rink), the patient and encouraging Ms. Foster helped the artists better connect with the song and do what musical theatre is meant to do - tell a story.

Particular points of focus included understanding and addressing a song's meaning - both in terms of the show and the artist personally, how to use the audience to create a moment, and how to use the lyrics and the music as a cohesive unit to demonstrate what the character wants. She encouraged them to dig deep and find meaning in the song, not just use it as a chance to show off their largely polished, but in some cases still maturing, musical theatre voices.

As they internalized Foster's helpful comments and put them to use in second or even third performances of a song (or segment therein), it was clear that they appreciated Ms. Foster's insight, which served to not only improve their performances, but substantially improve them.

Jonathan Tuzman, Nicole Elledge, and Sutton Foster (Photo: by Scott Suchman)

Following each coaching session - whether in the pop/rock or musical theatre events - the audience had an opportunity to engage in a bit of a Q&A with the master teachers. Focusing on everything from how to prepare for a live performances, the process of songwriting (in the case of Bareilles and Folds), to music education, it provided a unique learning opportunity.

A series of panels featuring the best in the pop/rock and musical theatre industries - everyone from music and casting directors, record executives, publicists, voice teachers, managers, educators and more - likewise also provided an opportunity for the professionals to focus on emerging issues in each of these industries.

For musical theatre, for example (in a panel hosted by Reneé Fleming) the focus was on the audition and casting processes for Broadway, the value of training, and the way in which the 'commerce' of Broadway intersects with the art of musical theatre. In the pop/rock panel (hosted by Chris Sampson from the University of Southern California), the focus was more on the business side of things - everything from getting signed to a label, the artist-manager-record exec relationship, the downsides and up-sides of touring, to much more.

All in all the master sessions, including the panels, provided insight as to what it takes to achieve success in the music world today, particularly in America. It was a worthy endeavor to be sure.

The "American Voices" Festival took place at the Kennedy Center on Nov. 22-24, 2013. A documentary covering the festival is slated to air on PBS sometime in 2014.

If interested, one can view the master sessions in their entirety on the Kennedy Center website.

Musical Theatre:

Pop Rock:

Graphic: Courtesy of Kennedy Center.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry