Saturday, July 26, 2014

Great American Songbook Competition puts young people's talents in touch with evergreen songs

Most of the songs presented in the annual Great American Songbook High School Vocal Academy and Competition are older than I am. The participants who interpret them are young enough to be my grandchildren.

So I have this enviable middle position each year, looking both to the future and to the past. In Friday's conclusive competition at the Palladium, I found most of the youthful vocalists astonishingly mature in their appearance and interpretations. That middle position was thus reinforced more than ever — a happy place to be.

This blog post won't attempt to review pluses and minuses about the performances of 24 songs, two by each of the 12 finalists brought to Carmel for the  past week to go through master classes, workshops and rehearsals on the way to Friday's finale.

Though I wasn't attempting to pick a favorite during the lengthy program, I tweeted some impressions during intermission and a few afterward. Of the 2014 Songbook Ambassador — the competition's top honor — I sent this to Twitter before the results of the judging were announced: "A mature communicator in both her songs, finalist Maddie Baillio displayed star potential." She deserves the $3,000 award and the wealth of performance opportunities promised over the next year.
Maddie Baillio came out on top of the competition's largest finalist field ever.

Her choices made for an inspired contrast: a deeply intimate "Misty," suggestive of Ella Fitxgerald's way with ballads, and "Murder, He Says," a period piece skewering repetitive slang. made famous by Betty Hutton and sung by Baillio with the requisite pizazz. (Today a male version of the song might well be titled, "Awesome, She Says.")

Before Baillio and two other singers were honored, jury chairman and artistic director Michael Feinstein had a slightly disturbing announcement: Judge-mentor Cheryl Bentyne missed the evening because "she had a gig."

That raised a few questions in my mind: Did Bentyne's engagement come up suddenly, necessitating the interruption of her commitment to the competition? If it didn't, might it not be a good idea for future contracts with Feinstein's distinguished colleagues to include a no-escape clause of some kind?

Here's the problem: If an expert in this repertoire has been engaged to observe and coach these youngsters throughout the week, he or she is sure to make a crucial contribution to judging the finals.  The Songbook Foundation could do the public a service by indicating that the competition is to some extent made up of the impressions each finalist makes in the days preceding the finale, if that's true. Who's got the personality, the flexibility, the potential charisma, the chops, and the capacity to learn?

Bentyne's absence Friday ought to be put in perspective: She might have provided detailed input to Feinstein and the other judges about such matters before she left town. And that's good.

Perhaps the competition evening is really an opportunity for the public to share imaginatively in the long process of selecting the best high-school exponents of the Great American Songbook in 31 states (the contest's expanded reach). Perhaps the performances that night are just to confirm the decisions the jury has informally made, and only a substandard outing  by an award frontrunner might tweak the short list.

I don't think there's any scandal here. It's just that the audience that filled the Palladium Friday night ought to know whether or not the competition's three prizes are determined only by the performances they are witnessing. And if everything is riding on that suspenseful event — and the rest is the essential, laudable but noncompetitive "academy" — the full jury should be present until the end.

Michael Feinstein listens to Grayson Samuels during a master class.
Songbook Inspiration award-winner Nia Savoy.
Readers of this blog post may link these thoughts to the fact I have a slight disagreement with one of the other two decisions, but I urge separate consideration.  I've raised a point that should have its validity assessed regardless of my preference for either Paige Brown or Milla Guerra as the recipient of one of the $1,000  awards — equal honors newly dubbed the Songbook Celebration Award (won by finalist Grayson Samuels) and the Songbook Inspiration Award (Nia Savoy).

Savoy offered a stunning version of "Solitude," with daring, expressive pauses that held the audience spellbound. But her other choice, "A Night in Tunisia," is not a "great American song." It's an evergreen bebop instrumental, Dizzy Gillespie's greatest hit, which doesn't translate well into an actual song, with lyrics. Some compositions that begin life as instrumentals are later marvelously repurposed for singers, "Misty" being a sublime case in point.

Others don't translate so well, and Savoy's choice of "A Night in Tunisia" tested her sorely and indicated her need for further seasoning. The lyrics are mediocre at best and contradict the tune's liveliness with their vision of the shopworn image of nocturnal peace.  The text and the tune both handicapped Savoy, in my view. This wasn't the only contestant choice that seemed ill-advised (why is a 15-year-old singing about serial widowhood, for example?), though such errors were fortunately few.

But the judges felt differently, obviously, and I wish Savoy every success, along with the rest of this generally well-prepared, appealing field of burgeoning vocal stylists and talented extenders of a precious legacy.

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