A concert saved from the brink, with style

I had the pleasure of attending a concert on Sunday, August 5, at the home studio of Bob Ralston.  It seemed like an ill-fated event, at first glance:

  • The soprano who was scheduled to sing, Renée Burkett, became ill and cancelled just a few days beforehand, so Jennifer Wallace stepped in at the last minute to perform the recital. There was time for only one rehearsal, the night before the performance.
  • On the day of the concert (in fact, en route to the house), Jennifer’s car was rear-ended on the 405 freeway and rendered undriveable. Fortunately, she was not injured. She waited for more than an hour at the scene of the accident for a police officer to arrive and sort out the details, while temperatures soared over 100º throughout LA.
  • Bob Ralston had turned off his home telephone so he could rest prior to performing, and did not receive any of Jennifer’s many calls to let him know what had happened.  A few minutes before the scheduled start of the concert, he finally got word that she was stuck on the freeway 20 miles away, with no working transportation.

As soon as it could be arranged, someone from the house drove out to the scene of the accident to pick up Jennifer.  In the meanwhile, concert-goers had already arrived and were waiting patiently for the concert to begin, so Bob came out and told us all what had happened.

He proposed to entertain us while we awaited Jennifer’s arrival, with a remarkable feat which he apparently performs at all his concerts:  He accepted requests from the audience for six songs, then sat down with no prior preparation and arranged the songs into two medleys, playing them for us with a full, synthesized orchestral accompaniment including rhythm section.  His segues from one song to another seemed effortless, there were no issues with key modulations or changes from 3/4  to 4/4 time, nothing to reveal that up until minutes ago, he hadn’t even known which songs would be chosen, and the orchestral accompaniments were interesting and multi-dimensional, not just “octave” repetitions of the primary themes.

Bob Ralston

I should say at this point that Bob’s studio includes at least four keyboards, ranging from a Yamaha baby grand piano to a Yamaha Electone HX, an electronic organ which can be used for playing everything from church music to jazz, with auto accompaniment and rhythm presets.  He had hung a huge mirror from the ceiling at an angle which allowed the audience to watch his hands on the keyboards, since it was difficult to see some of them from the audience’s position. This encouraged a fascination with his high level of technical expertise, both pianistic and electronic, as he played the electronics every bit as skillfully as most pianists play their notes, often playing one instrument with his left hand and a second one with his right hand.  This alone was worth the price of admission!

Jennifer Wallace

With perfect dramatic timing, Jennifer Wallace entered the studio just as the last medley finished, pausing only a second to wave hello as she passed through to the “Green Room”, where she freshened up from her adventures on the road.  Within a few minutes, she returned, ready to perform and looking every bit a star.  She and Bob hit the ground running with “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, “O Mio Babbino” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen.  Three differing styles, languages and vocal fachs, each performed without a hitch and with gorgeous tone and expression.  If an automobile accident couldn’t faze her, the music sure wouldn’t!  Bob moved straight into Bizet’s “Carmen Suite”, followed by “Sam’s Song”, excerpts from Dvórâk’s New World Symphony, and one of his own compositions, “God Is”, finishing with a sentimental favorite that brought back a bygone era in living color, “One More Walk Around The Garden”.

Jennifer wowed us with “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly and Bob came in with the theme song from Chariots of Fire.  Together they performed a medley of songs from the 30’s and 40’s:  “When I Fall in Love”;  “Long Ago and Far Away”;  “I Remember You” and  “You Belong To Me”.  Jennifer continued with a set of Judy Garland favorites:  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”;  “I Love A Piano”; “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song”.   All the way through, I remember wondering where she had found the reserves of energy to power her amazing voice after that Twilight Zone episode on the freeway…

Before we knew it, the evening was drawing to a close.  Bob and Jennifer sang an apt duet, “We Oughta Do This More Often”, then finished off with “I’ll Be Seeing You”, a promise to which I will definitely hold both of them.

I loved Bob’s easy command of the instruments he had assembled.  He could produce the sound of any orchestral instrument at any dynamic, with any rhythmic treatment, in any key, at the drop of a hat.  Truly phenomenal.  And my favorite pieces from Jennifer were the ones where she was all fired up, singing her heart out, not holding anything back.  Romantic ballads were beautiful, nice for a tempo change, but it was truly magical to see and hear her take control of the room when she had an upbeat tempo and a fully developed personality behind her songs.  This woman is a real pro and she obviously LOVES to sing.

So, transformed from an apparently “ill-fated” event to a “blessed” event, the performance by Jennifer Wallace and Bob Ralston was not to be missed.  Inspiring, technically stunning, full of just plain beautiful music, it is one concert I will not soon forget.  It’s worth keeping your eyes open for both of these performers in future productions.

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