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From Broadway to Hollywood: Ruthie Henshall, BBC Big Band, Barry Forgie, Cadogan Hall. London, 14.8.2009 (BBr)

Music by: Harold Arlen, John Barry, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Sammy Fain, George Gershwin, Jerry Herman, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini, Monty Norman, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne and Harry Warren

The BBC Big Band got things off to a real swingin’ start and were really cooking as they launched into Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band and kept the excitement at fever pitch when Ruthie Henshall joined them for Jule Styne’s showstopper Don’t Rain on my Parade, proving that you don’t need a boat and the Hudson River to make a success of this great song. The temperature was kept high with Henshall giving a very sexy performance of Cole Porter’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Jerry Herman’s Time Heals Everything (from Mack and Mabel) cooled things down a bit, before the band gave us an instrumental version of Moon River. So far so good. Henshall returned to perform a Gershwin set, but by now, having pushed her voice, which was unnecessary due to the amplification, she started to warble on the longer notes. This became tiresome on the ear quite quickly and I found myself loosing interest in listening to the music because the sound simply wasn’t attractive. A fine performance of Richard Rodger’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue from the band led to My Favourite Things (from The Sound of Music) and I realized that Henshall was fine singing fast music but as soon as the pace slackened she was loosing control of her voice and warbling again, as in Jerome Kern’s The Folks Who Live on the Hill. To end part one we were given a short tribute to Judy Garland with You Made me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It) (from Broadway Melody of 1938), The Trolley Song (from Meet Me in St. Louis) and Harold Arlen’s unforgettable Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

By now my ears were aching from the over amplification (which I am finding a real problem in this hall), and Ms Henshall’s delivery, and I was tempted to leave because I really didn’t fancy more of the same but my companion said that we should return for part 2 and we did, thus hearing the BBC Big Band in fine form in June is Bustin’ Out All Over (from Carousel) and a sumptuous version of Harry Warren’s I Only Have Eyes for You (from Dames) but Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing suited Ms Henshall rather better, the fast music not allowing her time to linger on the notes and thus avoid the warble. A, generally, very good James Bond Theme, but with the guitar in the wrong register thus failing to allow it to covey the necessary excitement, led to two great Bond theme tunes Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever which Henshall delivered brilliantly, and with great gusto. A strangely successful up–tempo instrumental version of Sammy Fain’s Secret Love (from Calamity Jane) Gershwin’s final song, Love is Here to Stay and Cole Porter’s great torch song Every Time We Say Goodbye – this last performaed by Ms Henshall sitting on the piano bench with the pianist – prepared us for a medley from Bernstein’s West Side Story with Ms Henshall singing Somewhere and the band giving a good selection of the other songs, in a superb arrangement, occasionally reminding me of Bill Reddie’s outstanding version for the Buddy Rich Big Band, complete with (overlong) drum solo – Buddy Rich showed exactly how this should be done in his performances.

I have listed almost all the music in the programme to give you some idea of the range offered but overall I was most disappointed by Ms Henshall’s performance – the uncontrolled warble (which these days we also hear from both our opera and pop singers), which disfigures any line sung, was almost too much to bear over the length of the show. It seems to me that when she was singing with her mouth open, or delivering fast music, there was little problem but as soon as she started to close her lips, and sing slow music, the trouble started. It’s not an insurmountable problem, and could fairly easily be corrected, but this is what we are regularly offerd by singers and audiences seem happy to accept the inadequate sound produced – but it is wrong to sing in this way. Ruth Etting didn’t need to warble, neither did Eva Turner or Michael Holliday (to name but three very diverse singers) so this is a modern phenomena and, if we really want to enjoy singers singing, teachers should start teaching the subtle art of vibrato, breath control and how to deliver a line cleanly and clearly and then with this delivery we will have singers performing with a pure voice, and a wealth of vocal expression will be heard in vocal concerts.

Bob Briggs

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