Erykah Badu and the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The classical crossover, combining a traditional symphony orchestra with popular music can be a difficult proposition. Do it wrong and you're accused of trivializing the skills of the players. Hit the wrong pitch and critics will say you're pandering to the masses. On Saturday night, the Alan Pierson and the Brooklyn Philharmonic did neither in the first of two concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with neo-soul diva (and this year's artist-in-residence) Erykah Badu.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
|Soul diva Erykah Badu emotes as Alan Pierson conducts the Brooklyn Philharmonic.|
Photo by Alvina Lai © 2013 The Brooklyn Philharmonic.
There was a lot of publicity leading up to Saturday night's concert. And there were some important questions:
- Would the leggy singer's brew of jazz, funk, soul and rap mesh or clash with the orchestra?
- Would the complex messages of her songs (drawn from the album New Amerykah Pt. 1: Fourth World War) get lost in a soup of orchestration?
- Finally, what would Ms. Badu (known for head wraps and exotic Afro-centric fashion statements) be wearing?
Although composer-rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) had withdrawn from the program, his space was filled by two able opening acts. The first half started with the orchestra backing rapper/monologuist Wordisbon (Kevin J. Estwick) in Blues for Black Hoodies, a lengthy piece with orchstrations by Brooklyn composer Randall Woolf. Strings, horns and a funky drummer (Jonathan Barber) provided backbeat for Wordisbon, supporting the stream of consciousness that elevated conscience.
Next up was a set from the Brooklyn DJ Tumblin' Dice. He took the stage with Mr. Dumaine and Wayne Dumaine, principal trumpet from the Brooklyn Phil. His set mixed backing tracks from Ms. Badu's albums with classic soul cuts (Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street") and unexpected past pop nuggets (Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)".) Mr. Dumaine solo'd over the breaks and Mr. Barber's drums provided power and emphasis to crucial beats.
After the intermission, the orchestra returned playing the "Amerykah Overture," supplemented by Tumblin' Dice, Mr. Barber's drums, a bass guitar and electric guitar. Then Ms. Badu entered, regal in a morning coat, an enormous decorative necklace, tie-dyed leggings and an honest-to-God opera hat. A green mug of something (possibly tea) balanced delicately in her long fingers. She set the tea down, stepped to the mic and proceeded to deliver a searing rendition of "The Healer" that electrified the audience.
This is confrontational, angry music, given muscle by Mr. Hearne's orchestrations and Ms. Badu's forceful delivery. Although the mix of band, orchestra and singers didn't always mean it was possible to discern the lyrical content, the force and power of Ms. Badu's intent came through. The songs were at times playful, soulful and emotive, tempering the anger with a rich humanity that was emphasized by the swelling orchestral support. Occasionally the singer played two tuning forks and the Theremin, an electronic instrument that responded to a wave of her hand.
The set flowed smoothly from track to track, with orchestral interludes by Mr. Hearne providing bridge materials. These also featured their own solo voices: poet Amen Khum Ra (performing in white robes while holding up an ankh and rapper Om'Mas Keith, quoting the famous speech from the 1970s movie Network. Mr. Dumaine returned to solo over the changes, and Wordisbon acted as emcee and occasional foil to the regal Ms. Badu.
The orchestra's support included a gorgeous violin intermezzo from concertmaster Debbie Buck. Mr. Hearne made creative use of flute solos, washes of percussion and rhythmic drive from plucked double basses, ably conducted with a spring and swing from Mr. Pierson. The set climaxed with a three-part rendition of "Master Teacher," followed by an encore reprise of "Me."