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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015

On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner Dorman, presented the first of two performances featuring a percussion concerto on the first half and a selection of show tunes on the second. What do these two musical styles have in common? Perhaps nothing, but in the words of Duke Ellington, “if it sounds good it IS good,” and from beginning to end, this was one good concert. The performance was presented as part of CityMusic’s “Wishes and Dreams: A Homeless Children Project.”

Avner Dorman’s Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, a percussion concerto for two players, is a mesmerizing three-movement work played without pause. Dorman has said that the title refers to “three substances that are extremely appealing yet filled with danger.” Throughout the piece, one can hear the influence of Middle Eastern music as well as jazz, raga, and rock. The two soloists navigate nearly 50 different instruments including marimbas, vibraphone, tambourine, and drums spanning an array of cultures.

Dorman’s writing is inspired. The opening, featuring two marimbas, immediately grabs your attention with its intoxicating harmonies, and its rich color palette hypnotizes you for nearly half an hour. Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! is as close as you can get to smelling sound.

Percussionists Haruka Fujii and Luke Rinderknecht were flawless. Their agility, both technically and physically was impressive as they seamlessly flowing from one rhythmic groove to next, and from one group of instruments to another. Dorman, who was conducting his work for the first time, kept the proceedings tidy and well-balanced between the soloists and the orchestra. This performance was akin to that of a well-oiled machine.

Tony and Grammy Award-winning singer Heather Headley is the real deal. If you’re not familiar with her immense talent, you need to be. Her pure, lush voice is a combination of her church music roots — she is the daughter of a minister — and the operatic training she received at Northwestern University. She speaks to her audience in a relaxed, personal manner and she knows how to introduce a tune with a good story. Her musical arrangements are intelligent and well-orchestrated, and she has a striking profile.

Backed-up by her prodigious music director, Ron Colvert, at the piano, bassist Alfredo Guerrieri and drummer Andrew Pongracz, Headley’s version of Over the Rainbow was second to none. Some standout tunes with orchestra included When I fall in Love and the great Dolly Parton song I Will Always Love You.

A touching moment occurred when Headley invited Cleveland School of the Arts senior China Bradford to join her in The Prayer, a song she often performs with the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. The young Miss Bradford outdid herself. And the orchestra got into the fun by acting as back-up singers during the Frankie Valli classic Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.

The coordination between Colvert and conductor Dorman was spot on, and the CityMusic musicians sounded like one of the great studio orchestras of the past.

Although this concert was a divergence from the type of performances CityMusic usually offers, it was certainly an experiment that succeeded on all levels.