O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Odetta and the Symphony: an Odd Coupling Indeed


Mick Jagger belting out "Satisfaction" in front of the Danish Accordion Orchestra? Placido Domingo rhapsodizing Puccini as played by the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra?

With some serious effort, you might be able to invent a more wonderfully batty musical conglomeration than veteran folk singer Odetta pulled off at the end of her performance Saturday with the Orange County Symphony of Garden Grove, an upwardly mobile community orchestra that's been moving from light classics into heavier music in recent seasons.

Having first extended a challenge ("If there's anyone in the orchestra who wants to join me . . . "), Odetta launched a cappella into "Black Woman," a lament that, like most of the music she has sung for the past four decades, reached back nearly a century to seminal forms of America's black music: in this case, field hollers and country blues. After a couple of verses, a drummer and upright-bass player sneaked in behind her resonant voice, then a single intrepid fiddler began sawing some credibly bluesy licks.

That moment worked better than most of the seven other numbers the singer and conductor Edward Peterson's orchestra performed together earlier, largely because the very spontaneity of it finally captured the spirit and freedom they'd been hovering around all evening.

On joint numbers such as Buffy Saint-Marie's ballad "Until It's Time for You to Go," Odetta's still-muscular voice shone, though she sometimes struggled against rocky backing that fell considerably short of the Nelson Riddle or Billy May standard of orchestral support.

The centerpiece of their collaboration was a reading of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," a three-section, 15-minute work that incorporates excerpts from some of Abraham Lincoln's most inspired writings and speeches. Odetta, in what she said was her first performance in Orange County, took the narrator's job that (too?) often has been dealt to Hollywood's finest (Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston are among those who have recorded the piece).

Faltering only briefly over a couple of passages, Odetta delivered an unforced reading that generally heeded the composer's cautions to would-be narrators "against any undue emphasis in the delivery of Lincoln's words . . . (which) are sufficiently dramatic in themselves; they need no added 'emotion' in order to put them across to an audience."

And dramatic they were. As articulated by a black woman, Lincoln's astonishingly succinct definition of a democracy ("As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master") rang doubly pertinent. Likewise, the words from Gettysburg that Copland selected when the piece was commissioned in the midst of World War II--"That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion . . . "--hit like today's headlines in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. Like so many before her, however, Odetta apparently couldn't resist the temptation to lean on each of Lincoln's immortal prepositions regarding "government of . . . by . . . and FOR the people."

The orchestra succeeded best in the first section, which quietly evokes the 16th President's simple greatness, while simultaneously hinting at the ultimate tragedy of his assassination. No cheap flag-waving here, even if it was the orchestra's Independence Day-anticipating concert. Ragged ensemble work and insecurity in the percussion section frequently prevented the middle portion from achieving the kick-up-your-heels abandon it should convey. Upon the arrival of the narrator in the final section, Peterson and his scrappy band provided Odetta with obsequious support, though in a couple of over-enthusiastic crescendos, they forced her to compete for attention.

On her own for a too-brief 25-minute set in which she accompanied herself on guitar, the singer who helped pave the way for countless '60s folk-protest singers on up to the more-contemporary likes of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman sang with a purity and passion that belied her 60 years.

She adopted the voice of a weary old man, a voice conjured up from deep in the soul of black history, for "900 Miles," one of several traditional numbers that have been the staple of her repertory. She moaned its haunted confession ("I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow"), which was echoed in her relentless strumming over two chords, chillingly capturing the suffering that will be relieved only in the next life.

For "Shenandoah," she shifted vocal gears and elicited angelically pure tones of melancholy to deliver the tale of a doomed cross-cultural love.

The downside of life for a standard-bearer such as Odetta, who has devoted her career to maintaining America's musical heritage as a living, breathing entity instead of letting it become museum fodder, is that she'll never be trendy enough to earn a zillionth of the money Vanilla Ice will hopscotch his way to this year.

She may, however, take no small comfort in knowing that because of that vital role she plays, she'll never fall into the oblivion to which one day the Ice Man undoubtedly will goeth.

The orchestra opened the concert with an Americana-laden pops program, albeit one that included the inevitable Lennon-McCartney medley. Its first venture outside Garden Grove came on the occasion of the grand opening of the renovated Pearson Park Amphitheatre.

A new sound system proved more hospitable to Odetta's solo voice and guitar than to the heavily-miked 60-member orchestra, which sounded wan and compressed when squeezed through the single loudspeaker enclosure that was suspended about 20 feet above the crowded stage. Aural dissociation proved less bothersome at the rear of the 2,100-seat amphitheater than in the first several rows, where dribs and drabs of natural sound that escaped the stage struggled against the electronically enhanced version wafting down from above.

An audience of about 1,300 predominantly white, forty- and fiftysomething responded enthusiastically.

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