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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nick Kimberley

Cynthia Erivo: Legendary Voices at the BBC Proms - Big sounds kept the crowd happy

When does a cover version cease to be an attempt to cash in and instead become an act of creative reinvention? Cynthia Erivo’s Proms concert, Legendary Voices, was a heartfelt tribute to voices that she admired and which had helped her find her own vocal style. She is as much an actor as a singer and has won awards aplenty, including for playing Aretha Franklin; in this, her Proms debut, she took on roles as a singer rather than as an actor.

Her ‘band’ was the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater, and a very big band it proved to be: there were, for example, no fewer than seven percussionists, more than enough for a Mahler symphony let alone a concert by a 21st century soul singer. That became more of a problem the longer the concert went on.

Erivo’s emergence from the wings was appropriately regal: was the ovation for the singer or for her flamboyant dress? She announced that she’d selected songs that meant a lot to her, partly – but only partly, it seemed – because of the “legendary voices” who’d sung them. Without exception, each song had been arranged for a large symphony orchestra, which turned out not to be a positive feature.

Erivo with the BBC Concert Orchestra (Chris Christoudoulou)

Erivo’s voice has a strong, feelingful quality, at times slightly nasal but always inflected by blues and gospel idioms. It was surprising that she only sang one Aretha song (Ain’t No Way) but given that there’s a specific Franklin tribute later in the Proms season (August 22), perhaps that’s understandable. She did, however, offer three numbers associated with Nina Simone, although she made no attempt to imitate Simone’s fractured vocal style. Instead, I Put a Spell on You, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Feeling Good received supersized, defiantly retro big band arrangements that ironed out any vocal idiosyncrasies.

Here and throughout, heavy-handed amplification did nobody any favours, simply making everything louder instead of encouraging greater subtlety. An amplified whisper can fill a huge arena like the Albert Hall, but that wasn’t how it was used here. Still, Erivo’s choices showed taste. Not many contemporary soul singers would look to Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia for inspiration, but was the enthusiastic reception a response to the song and its arrangement (close to the original) or was it acclaim for the singer? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Erivo’s voice is big and emotive, and she has the wherewithal to turn down the dial to something intimate. Here, though, grand vocal gestures held sway, their impact only exaggerated by over-emphatic amplification. On the night, though, this was a minority view: the audience acclaim was all but unanimous in its enthusiasm.

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