October 5, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony Pops Pay Tribute to Judy Garland

By Mark Kanny

Singer Linda Eder and conductor Marvin Hamlisch teamed for an affectionate tribute to Judy Garland at the opening concert of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops season Thursday night at Heinz Hall.

Eder is a down-to-earth personality with a wonderful voice who was inspired to become a singer when she was 8 by seeing Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." Eder was a vibrant presence singing some of Garland's hits and some of her own.

Hamlisch began with uncharacteristically low energy, setting a tempo for the Overture to George Gershwin's "Girl Crazy" that was anything but up-tempo. (Garland starred in the 1943 film of the Broadway musical.) Still, the orchestral sound in the Overture was bold and brassy, and there were plenty of solos that were full of personality.

The conductor became more energized as he told the story of his first encounter with Garland. Her daughter, Liza, was the girlfriend of one of Marvin's friends. Because Liza's mom was opposed to Liza's show-business ambitions, Marvin and Liza put together a few songs to perform at a Christmas eve party at Garland's sumptuous home. When the kids were done, the legend invited the boy to stay at the piano and accompany her.

Then the Pops conductor went to the piano to play one of those songs for the Heinz Hall audience. Priceless.

Eder came to fame by winning "Star Search" and cemented her standing by starring in "Jekyll and Hyde" and with popular recordings.

She loves to sing and uses the microphone like a stage performer rather than recording-studio artist. Singing is physical, and she has vocal power that lets her move the mike away to avoid overloading in climaxes.

"The Rainbow's End" by Jack Murphy was one of her most effective numbers, a bluesy number that offers an experience-tinged perspective on Garland's most famous hit, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," from "The Wizard of Oz."

When Eder sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as her final encore, her approach was highly stylized. The range of feelings through which the song travels were shaped separately, even to tempo.

By contrast, Garland's performance in the film is a marvel of directness, with emotional discovery and musical continuity going hand in hand. Eder's performance worked very well in a way more akin to Garland's later style, though, without becoming overwrought.

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