2/20/2013

Roberta Flack: Deep Soul and Warm Melodies

When Roberta Flack opens her mouth to sing, as she did on the evening of February 14, 2013, at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, the velvet sound that flows out is, at once, enormously appealing and totally unmistakable. The singer and pianist, who received her musical training at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and came to lasting fame with a string of albums and singles during the 1970s, was appearing with the Oregon Symphony for a special performance on Valentine's Day. It was a valuable opportunity to experience the mature talent of a gifted and gracious musician.

Roberta Flack's first album, First Take, was released on Atlantic Records in 1969, after she had spent several years working as a teacher and appearing in local nightclubs. Her second album, Chapter Two, was released in 1970, and was followed by Quiet Fire in 1971. Also in 1971, a track from First Take, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (a British folk song, written by Ewan MacColl in the late 1950s), was chosen to be heard in a film, Play Misty for Me (a thriller that starred, and was directed by, Clint Eastwood), and was released as a single, reaching #1 within seven weeks and establishing Roberta Flack as a major performer.

The first half of the concert featured the Oregon Symphony, under the sharp direction of Charles Floyd, performing a handful of colorful pieces that brightly displayed the varied capacities of Portland's excellent orchestra. Beginning the evening with a lively reading of the Overture to George Gershwin's Girl Crazy, the musicians continued with expert performances of Summer's Unfolding by Scott Hiltzik, "Montagues and Capulets" from Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev, three of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, and "Love's Theme" by Barry White. The charm and humor of Charles Floyd was pleasingly evident in his playful comments to the audience.

Roberta Flack, whose richly expressive style is strongly informed by jazz and gospel, commenced her own part of the concert with an engaging rendering, sung as a duet with one of her backup vocalists, of one of her biggest hits, "Where Is the Love." (Her well-known recording of that song, released in 1972, was enhanced by the voice of her close friend, Donny Hathaway.) Next came a song that was written by George Harrison, "Isn't It a Pity." During the course of the evening, she also performed another of his songs, "Here Comes the Sun," along with "Hey Jude," written by Paul McCartney. (Her latest album, Let It Be Roberta, released in 2012, comprises twelve songs that were composed and made famous by members of The Beatles.)

She seated herself at a piano for most of her performance, singing her familiar hits, "Killing Me Softly with His Song," "Feel Like Makin' Love," "Back Together Again," "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love," and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," in addition to other songs, including "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and two songs by Marvin Gaye, "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)" and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." The Oregon Symphony, together with her own musicians (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, two backup singers), provided a suitably grand setting for her polished offerings, with her guitarist being particularly outstanding. In between her songs, she spoke of her life as a musician and shared memories of her childhood in Arlington, Virginia.

On Valentine's Day in Portland, Roberta Flack gave a graceful performance in which deep soul and warm melodies were the most pronounced elements, proving that even after four decades of regularly being in the spotlight, her vocal abilities still constitute a musical treasure of the highest quality. The fortunate audience in attendance at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall clearly enjoyed hearing both her musicianship and her stories, and loudly called out for more when the evening concluded (much too soon, it seemed) and Roberta Flack departed from the stage.