Ann Hampton Callaway, who joined the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday night for a tribute to Barbra Streisand, knows better than to try to be Streisand. Nobody can be Streisand.
Callaway was simply herself. And that was a marvel in itself.
It doesn’t happen often that you see someone take over Kleinhans Music Hall. That was what Callaway did. As the night went on, her voice and her spirit seemed to expand to fill the space available. Her pipes grew louder and mightier, and she grew more free and more comfortable and more resonant and in charge. You could tell she was a woman who had paid her dues, had entertained in her share of lounges. She knew how to handle a crowd.
Specifically, she knew how to handle this crowd. The night peaked when, at home in her new environment, she created a Buffalo blues.
It was hilarious. She asked the audience a series of questions. First she needed the girl’s occupation. “Zamboni driver,” someone called out. Callaway was puzzled. “What’s Zamboni?” she asked. More shouts. “Ice rink,” she said. She wrote something down.
Then she needed the boy’s occupation. He was a chef at Chef’s. Long story short, she wound up sitting down at the piano and declaiming this blues. It started out, “I’m a driver at Zamboni” – Callaway never had gotten that straight – and ended up, “And I can’t go back to Chef’s, because that man, he don’t love me no more!”
What fun. This gal is part vaudeville, and at that point you realized she really didn’t need Streisand at all.
But Streisand was the theme of the evening, and we heard some beautiful songs that Streisand sang. It’s a good idea to name a songbook after her. She does have her own distinct style of music.
Callaway began with “A Sleepin’ Bee,” the bluesy Harold Arlen ballad that earned Streisand her first fame. The Buffalo crowd cheered its native son. She knew enough to remind people he was from our town. Later, singing David Shire’s “Starting Here, Starting Now,” she should have told everyone that Shire, too, was from Buffalo. Well, it was good enough just to hear that song, and she sang it beautifully.
Callaway has her own vocal strengths, different from Streisand’s. She doesn’t attempt Streisand’s high notes or dizzying flourishes. She does, however, sing with her own honesty and emotion, and her voice, darker than Streisand’s, is rich and clear.
She sang “The Way We Were” with real emotion, and gave zip to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from “Funny Girl.” The bounce tempo of “Evergreen,” from “A Star is Born,” gave the song a different sound from what we’re used to, but it was well done.
A big, blowsy “Cry Me a River” went out as a Valentine’s Day special “to all the single and bitter people.” It was set off by a tremendous torchy sax solo by the BPO’s Sal Andolina. Artists like Callaway must rejoice, finding Andolina in the orchestra. They probably can’t believe their luck.
The entire orchestra, led by Matthew Kraemer, did a good job riding the waves of the evening. Callaway’s pianist, Bill Cunliffe, earned his money, anchoring Callaway’s trio and contributing energetic solos. His solo in octaves in “Lover, Come Back To Me” was especially striking.
It was a night to remember, and by the end of it, the crowd was yelling back and forth to Callaway as if she were one of us. She may as well have been.
To set the stage for her, Kraemer led the orchestra in music from “My Fair Lady” and in “Moon River.”