By Barry Bassis
Last year, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of Beatles songs. Now the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has returned the compliment with an album of songs by Burt Bacharach, “What the World Needs Now …” Although none of these interpretations overshadows the recordings of Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin or Dusty Springfield, the album is quite pleasant and has the merit of collecting all these songs on one CD. Bacharach’s genius is creating sophisticated pop songs that never fail to sound fresh, like “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk on By.” He made his reputation collaborating with lyricist Hal David, who was never pretentious and could be witty. On the other hand, they could both be sappy (as on “Close to You” or “Magic Moments”) The vocalists are Graham Bickley, Mary Carewe, Alison Jiear and Sarah Lark. Arranger-conductor Richard Balcombe recognized that he couldn’t improve Bacharach’s original flourishes, such as the guiro (a Latin-American percussion instrument) on “The Look of Love” or the saxophone solo on “Arthur’s Theme” but the lush orchestration adds to the romance without inhibiting the rhythmic drive. Jihear’s “Don’t Make Me Over” and “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me” are suitably intense—she is the most soulful of the singers—and “The Look of Love” is ethereal. Bickley’s voice is well suited to “Promises Promises” and “Wives and Lovers” — he sounds a bit like Jack Jones -- but is too light for “Twenty-Four Hours to Tulsa.” Sarah Lark’s buoyant rendition of “San Jose” made me appreciate the clever lyrics more than before and Carewe is charming on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
Canadian tenor Marc Hervieux is a popular recording artist who regularly appears on opera stages. “Mes Plaisirs,” is a concert of popular French and Quebecois songs in arrangements by Simon Leclerc, performed with the Orchestre symphonique de Quebec. While some opera singers are concerned that belting out pop songs may damage their voices, Hervieux is not one of them. Indeed, my reservation about the album is that he has a little too much Mario Lanza in his approach. He is at his best in the quieter pieces. Thus, I prefer Gilbert Becaud’s “La maison sour les arbres” to the same singer-songwriter’s bombastic “Et Maintenant.”
The only piece on the CD associated with Jacques Brel is his French translation of “The Quest” from “The Man of La Mancha.” The engineering is exquisite; I didn’t realize there was an audience until they burst into applause after the first song.
A couple of new releases feature jazz artists performing classical material. “Dyad Plays Puccini” is a duo of Lou Caimano on alto saxophone and Eric Olsen on piano. The idea of mixing jazz and opera is not new. Joe Lovano made an album of arias and songs recorded by Caruso. While Camaino and Olsen include some tenor arias, they also delve into works created for female singers plus instrumentals, such as the overture to “Madame Butterfly.” They take an imaginative approach to these lush melodies, sometimes making them swing and on occasion incorporating a middle-eastern sound. Another alto saxophonist, John O’Gallagher, takes on even more challenging material on “The Anton Webern Project.” On the liner notes, he says that the eight pieces are an attempt to imagine what the composer would sound like if he were a jazz musician today. The answer seems to be someone in the avant garde tradition of Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. The CD may not be easy listening, but it turns out to be quite arresting. •