An Anthem Reclaimed 

Thursday, Feb 19 2004

NONA GAYE at the NBA All-Star Weekend, Staples Center, February 14

“I was right there, standing on the court,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told me matter-of-factly. If you too were at the Forum to see Marvin Gaye sing the national anthem at 1983’s NBA All-Star Game, you truly experienced a music revolution. That performance was a catalyst for the pairing of popular music and national sporting events; this is the first time since then that the game has been back in Los Angeles.

The weekend’s entertainment included American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, the Beach Boys, Nelly Furtado, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and OutKast, but it was Marvin Gaye’s daughter Nona performing a Valentine’s Day “duet” with her late father (à la Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” pairing with Nat) who stole the show. The 19,000-plus capacity crowd rose to their feet as Nona transformed the Francis Scott Key standby into a soulful psalm — the backing drum track and organ felt like a Motown classic more than a patriotic testament. Marvin on a video screen (wearing his oversize round sunglasses and a suit) and Nona (in suit and scarf) intertwined melismas, stirring the audience to whistles and hollers. When they arrived at “the land of the free,” both with clenched fists in the air, you had to remember another famous sports moment — Mexico ’68, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists. It was beautiful.

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Brad Pye Jr., a black community veteran from the L.A. Watts Times standing to my right, turned and said, “She did her father proud.” And the younger black brother in a Darryl Dawkins throwback jersey on my other side yelled out, “That’s what’s going on!” Amen.

CECILIA BARTOLI at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, February 8

You can’t compare the audience reaction at a Cecilia Bartoli recital to anything else in the classical-music world. A better analogy would be a slightly more restrained version of Super Bowl mania, or maybe the worshipful hysteria that accompanied the Beatles at their height. All the 38-year-old Italian mezzo has to do is walk onstage for the cheers, whoops and “Bravas!” to start. Responding with laughter, raised eyebrows and hand on heart, Bartoli immediately established a rapport at her Los Angeles Opera recital that went beyond appreciation, or respect, or even mere musical satisfaction. As one audience member screamed somewhere around Bartoli’s fourth encore, “WE LOVE YOU!” Just another example of why Cecilia was the recipient, at last year’s Grammys, of the coveted FM Listeners Award, making her classical music’s most popular star.

Bartoli conquered not only hearts but the notorious acoustical challenges of the Chandler with a delightful selection by her favorite composers, Rossini and Bellini (“I’m clearly a child of the 18th century,” she once remarked. “Rossini and Bellini are absolutely the limit.”), plus some Donizetti, and a sparkling dose of French songs and arias by Bizet, Berlioz, Delibes and Pauline Viardot. Throughout, Bartoli displayed her trademark supercoloratura (who can trill faster or more cheerfully?), along with her talent for comedy. Vocal effects like yodels and insect imitations, comic facial expressions, and saucy body movements and gestures had the audience roaring. At the same time, she could reduce us to tears with Rossini’s “L’Esule,” a lament of longing that she virtually sighed rather than sang, or Handel’s exquisite “Lascia Chi’Io Pianga,” which, through her rich, soulful interpretation, ascended from aria into prayer. Oh yes: special kudos to her accompanist, Sergio Ciomei, whose delicacy and intuitive nuances made for a perfect collaboration. (Mary Beth Crain)

Astrid Hadad
(Photo by Pancho Gilardi)


Licking the blade of her knife and singing, Astrid Hadad wore a fake black leather hoop skirt with matching bustier and sombrero, her look and voice fusing mariachi with kink. Coined by Hadad as “heavy nopal,” this style is aptly described by UCLA Live’s David Sefton as “Diamanda [Galás] with jokes.” A diva in the true sense, Hadad takes Mexican and Latin music (ranchera, bolero, rumba, fado) and grinds it up with her rich, deep vocal expression. Also trained as an actress, the onetime telenovela star uses fantastical costumes (folkloric hoop skirts serve as both dress and set) to format the presentation into a show-tunes-meet-performance-art format.

Singing in Spanish, narrating in broken English, Hadad moved from Latin dance to faux ballet, even some headbanging — but the moments of truth were the tableaux vivants. In “Le Petit Mort,” she was strapped into a standing mattress into which her negligee was integrated; in a sexy nightie, under luxurious rose-colored covers, with her hair spilling upward, she wailed sweetly. If you squinted, it was almost realistic. As living art, she radicalized the famed Diego Rivera painting The Flower Seller, carrying two-dimensional calla lilies and dressed as a revolutionary. Another gown and headdress featured glowing sacred hearts with eyeballs; finally, using foldout party decorations as wings and a halo, she worked the iconography of Mexico. But the USA didn’t escape without a few well-placed jabs: As the Statue of Liberty, she struck the torch-bearing pose and declared, “Visit the United States before the United States visits you!” Songs were also dedicated to the president and the governor (and a particularly tragic ballad to Arnold’s wife!). The hardest-working woman in show biz finished the encore with a self-contained fiesta via a sombrero pre-loaded with confetti, with which she showered the stage. (Ron Athey)

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