The Manhattan Transfer with the Austin Symphony

Local Arts Reviews

The Manhattan Transfer
The Manhattan Transfer

The Manhattan Transfer with the Austin Symphony: Fit to Please

Austin Convention Center,

May 31

"There was magic abroad in the air," goes the line in the romantic standard "A Nightingale Sang in Barkeley Square." It's describing the night when two lovers first met, but as the four accomplished vocalists who comprise the Manhattan Transfer intertwined their voices around that lyric, the line was also describing that very evening. How else to explain the fact that these four singers, who have been performing together for more than a quarter of a century, swing as hard and blend their voices as exquisitely today as they did on their 1970s debut album? How else to explain the way that they made a convention hall the size of an airplane hangar and with about the same ambience feel as intimate as a jazz club on 52nd Street in their namesake city?

This Pops Promenade concert closing out the Austin Symphony's 2001-02 season didn't exactly promise enchantment at the outset. Holding the event in the as-yet unfinished new section of the Convention Center, in a maze of streets blockaded by construction sites and clogged with thousands of thrumming motorcycles in town for the Biker Rally, made for an atmosphere closer to that of a war zone than a cultural event. But Peter Bay and the ASO quickly took the edge off with three symphonic tributes to Richard Rodgers. The selections -- "Waltz Suite" from Carousel, "March of the Siamese Children" from The King and I, and the jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" from On Your Toes -- provided lush reminders of Rodgers' melodic genius, and how thoroughly his compositions can sweep under you and carry you away, into the sky, into the stars, off to a tropical island. The choices also nicely showcased the composer's versatility: his command of European classicism, of the integration of exotic elements from Eastern traditions, and our own nation's jazz. With work as familiar as Rodgers', Bay and company could have settled for Muzak simplicity, but they tackled each piece with the attentiveness they would apply to heavyweight orchestral works, the result being a trio of tight, luxuriant melodic episodes -- fantasias for lands near and far.

Yes, the orchestra cast some spells of its own, but it was the guest artists who worked the greatest transformations. From the moment they launched into their sublime rendition of "Route 66," the hall began to shrink in size. Every phrase, every word, every vocal tweak, every swing, every swerve along the harmonic highway, every dovetail of voices into musical oneness, could be heard -- and not just captured by the ear but relished in it -- as if the singers were but an arm's length away. You can say it was the quality of the sound equipment, but something else was at work there, a skill of the performers, a will on their part to bring us closer to them. And it worked.

For an hour and a half, they turned this vast chamber of commerce into their own personal Birdland. They bounced from "Route 66" to "Choo-Choo Ch'Boogie," swung us down to "Tuxedo Junction" and poured us a slug of that wonderful "Java Jive," dialed up the "Operator" and two or three times went down for the count (Basie, that is). Every step of the way, the singers -- Janis Segal, Tim Hauser, Alan Paul, and Cheryl Bentyne -- used their command of their vocal instruments, their enthusiasm for the material, and their uncanny rapport with each other to construct richly layered, powerfully entertaining, and perhaps most of all intensely personal renditions of the songs they performed. Singing "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" in tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, their skipping, carefree, bebopping delivery conveyed not only the spirit of the singer but their affection for her. And their version of "Embraceable You," with sumptuous support from the symphony, was at once grandly romantic and an intimately tender confession. In every number, they did something to make the room smaller. By the time they closed with the Beatles' "Good Night," topped off by a group reading of Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, it was as if the club had shrunk to the size of a bedroom and the Transfer were tucking us in for the night.

Looking back, it's one of those concerts that seems almost like a dream. And yet, I know it wasn't. That certain night, the night in the Austin Convention Center, four nightingales sang. I'm perfectly willing to swear.

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Manhattan Transfer, Austin Symphony, Peter Bay, Richard Rodgers, Waltz Suite, Carousel, March of the Siamese Children, The King and I, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, On Your Toes, Route 66, Choo-Choo Ch'Boogie, Tuxedo Junction, Java Jive, Operator, Janis Segal, Tim Hauser, Al

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