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Music Review: Bacharach concert medleys leave fans wanting more

Saturday, November 15, 2003

By John Young

Few artists could perform 36 songs over the course of 90 minutes and still leave listeners wanting more. But Burt Bacharach proved to be a glorious exception to that rule Thursday night at Heinz Hall.

Playing with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony and his own eight-piece band as part of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops series, Bacharach led the musicians through intricate, engaging arrangements of many of his hits.

To squeeze in as much material as he did, Bacharach often resorted to medleys. The effect was occasionally frustrating -- how dare the maestro play only one take of the piano arpeggios and "Don't stop" vocals that render "Walk on By" a melancholy classic? The tactic ultimately made sense, though, as it allowed Bacharach to at least register the power of each song's lyrical or melodic hook. If he didn't play your personal favorite in its entirety, all the more reason to return to the albums at home to hear the unedited original versions.

The medleys were also thoughtfully organized. The set of film songs demonstrated Bacharach's range, leaping from the loud, brassy "What's New, Pussycat" to reflective ballads like "Making Love" and "Alfie." Another grouping brought together songs of longing and heartbreak like "Message to Michael," "One Less Bell to Answer," "Blue on Blue" and "You'll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)."

Bacharach also added humor by grouping his first four hits together, including the laugh-out-loud funny movie theme "Beware of the Blob." His quip about the tunes was spot-on: "Sounds like somebody else wrote these songs? To me, too."

Bacharach employed three different vocalists on most of his material, and each sang a full song solo. John Pagano did justice to the Bacharach and Elvis Costello collaboration "God Give Me Strength." His falsetto choruses were sometimes lost in the swelling music, but he brought real bite and drama to the verses and bridge. Josie James performed "Anyone Who Had a Heart" with a flair for light, breathy vocal touches. Finally, Donna Taylor made "Close to You" her own, taking the song at a slower tempo and singing with a fitting soulful expressiveness.

Bacharach sang very little. When he did tackle a vocal, his voice was whisper light. That made for an engaging and fitting conclusion, though, as he softly stressed the importance of the words to "The Windows of the World." The song's call for love and peace over conflict might be simplistic, but it offered evidence of Bacharach's respect for the power of popular music to do more than move product or fill dance floors.

He then concluded with the same song with which he had started the show: "What the World Needs Now Is Love." The world does need more of that -- and more Bacharach.

Before Bacharach performed, Daniel Meyer conducted the symphony for four "greatest hits" of classical music. Meyer stressed the link each piece had to films, from the use of the William Tell Overture in "A Clockwork Orange" to the inclusion of Strauss waltzes in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Bacharach plays again tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

John Young is a freelance writer.

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