From Broadway to the Grand Ole Oprey

From Broadway to the Grand Ole Oprey

Five CDs from female singers you hoped to get for Christmas

As we all face the New Year, disappointed, but not really all that surprised by our loved ones’ lack of discernment in zeroing in on our tastes during the recent mad exchange of gifts, there are some musical jewels from leading female vocalists of divergent styles worthy of everyone’s careful consideration.

“Renee Olstead”


Lolita, move over.

Your jaw will likely drop when you hear “Summertime,” the first of 12 tracks on this disc of standards and classics sung by the sensational Renée Olstead.

The woman has every sexy insinuation, every purr and coo, every jazz riff and Broadway belt under the sun on the tip of her tongue.

Olstead knows just how to tease the pants off every note—and a good proportion of her listeners. Hers is a rare kind of mastery, one that transcends formula because she’s so good. That all this comes from the throat of an ultra-sophisticated, 14-year-old, at the time of recording, defies credulity.

What might Olstead’s singing do for you? My husband jumped off the couch, grabbed a sheet and began to perform the first strip tease of his life. In the middle of filling two very deep cavities, my straight dentist began talking about the 24-year-old woman he met in his 40s who in one evening taught him more than he had ever known, achieving a level of distraction patients really don’t need in situations such as this one.

It takes supreme confidence to issue a début recording titled only with your name. Olstead’s got that and more. Brilliant arrangements of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “What a Difference a Day Makes,” Barry Manilow’s “Meet Me Midnight,” the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Sunday Kind of Love” and other greats, these performances are so precocious it’s scary.

Positively irresistible.


“From Greece with Love”

Deutsche Grammophon

Thanks to the 2004 Olympics, Deutsche Grammophon has re-released this soulful recording of Greek songs by Mikis Theodorakis and other 20th-century Greek composers. Accompanied by Stavros Xarhakos’ Athens Experimental Orchestra, with solo bouzouki by Kostas Papadopoulos, mezzo-soprano Agnes Baltsa abandons all trace of the rich operatic vocalism that made her a sensational Carmen to sing with unaffected ease.

Long out-of-print, I first learned of this disc more ten years ago, and spent the next six months searching out a used copy. Why? The music is so damn beautiful. Listen to Xarhakos’ “Áspri méra ke ya mas” (“There will be better days, even for us”), with its repeated downward plucks on the harp strings reinforcing Baltsa’s heart-touching vocals on “I will water the time with my salt tears.” It and the barcarolle “Varkarólla” may be tearful, but other tracks feature the kind of join hands in a circle and kick up your heels music that we remember from “Zorba the Greek.”

I don’t know if critics initially panned this release the way they snubbed mezzo Anne Sophie von Otter’s superb disc with Elvis Costello, but those with ears and heart will recognize its uniqueness. Don’t miss this marvelous CD this time around.




Marlene Dorcena, a Haitian refugee now living in Belgium, launched her career with a 1991 tour of Europe and performances accompanying a theater troupe. After the 1994 coup d’état rendered Haiti politically unstable, she returned to Europe where she continues to write and perform songs about her native country.

In this début album, whose Creole title translates to French as “Merci,” Dorcena applies her captivatingly soft and sensual style to a wide variety of music. Accompaniment is simple, tasteful and acoustic. Whether the track is a ballad or upbeat, Dorcena maintains a smooth, soulful equilibrium. The occasional wail, as in the opening track’s saxophone-accompanied “Papa Danmbalah,” thus becomes all the more powerful.

Most of the tracks are traditional, with Dorcena’s arrangements bearing a distinctive 21st-century stamp. The concluding track, Dorcena’s own “Wangol,” is sung solo; its lyrics implore the Haitian expatriate to return as “the country is suffering and we’re being eaten by worry.” With our first opportunity to visit Dorcena’s seductive singing arriving in the shadow of yet another Haitian coup, this album remains as compelling as at the time of its 2002 European release.


“Voices of Light”


Gratitude galore to soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianist Gilbert Kalish and Nonesuch for this illuminating CD.

Upshaw has been devoting considerable time of late to vocal explorations of the exalted and the divine. These include singing the role of the Angel in the 1992 Peter Sellars’ Salzburg Festival production of the late Olivier Messiaen’s devoutly Christian opera “Saint Francois d’Assise,” and debuting the lead role written specifically for her in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “L’amour de Loin,” which transported me at the Santa Fe Opera premiere mounted by Sellars.

It was while exploring the ecstatic songs of Messiaen and programming some of them with selections from Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite late song cycle “La Chanson d’Ève” that Upshaw conceived this recital. Paired with a new work dedicated to Upshaw, contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov’s touching “Lúa descolorida,” plus Claude Debussy’s ethereal “Chansons de Bilitis”—based on the most famous literary hoax of the late 19th century, Pierre Louÿs’ erotic poetry falsely attributed to Bilitis, a reputedly fictitious lesbian friend of Sappho who purportedly resided on the Isle of Lesbos—the results are frequently riveting.

Upshaw’s voice remains unique. What came across in the 1980s as a lovely girlish soprano with a smile, touches of which remain in the Messiaen selections recorded in 1997 (six years before the rest of the program), has developed into the voice of a mature artist. The vibrato on high notes retains the captivating shimmer of youth, but wide-eyed wonder has given way to grown up rapture.

Upshaw’s gifts lie less in subtle shading than in total conviction. For those who can handle sitting in silence and absorbing the feeling behind words, what may initially seem like an understated approach grows into one of all-enveloping concentration.

The music itself is gorgeous. The sensual works of three French composers born between 1845 and 1908 grow all the stronger for hearing them side-by-side, with the Argentinean Golijov complementing the mix. Graced by 11 pages of ultra-literate liner notes by the extraordinary program annotator Michael Steinberg, this disc is recommended to all who treasure beauty.


“Live & Well”

Sugar Hill Records

Part-Smokey Mountain maiden, part-Disney caricature, Dolly Parton continues to reign as a quintessential icon of American popular culture.

This 2-CD, 21-track set, also available as a single DVD-Video, recorded live in Parton’s Dollywood Theater during her 2002 “Halos and Horns Tour,” finds her in stellar form.

Singing with strength and clarity, her down home demeanor and Grand Ole Oprey background on full display, Parton proves that she more than deserves her five Grammys and five Country Music Association Awards. An entertainer par excellence, whose winning repartee with her audience includes references to hip-hop, the dual pull between the Angels’ halos and the Devils’ horns, spiritual quests and UFOs, Parton makes you feel good even when she sings about what’s bad.