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Sofia Kirwan-Baez

by on 22 January 2021

Smoky Sounds at Virtual Midnight

Sofia Kirwan-Baez

Live Lounge, OSO, on-line via YouTube from 20th January

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Quite a trans-Atlantic day: it was the day that the 46th President of the United States was sworn in, in splendidly soulless isolation, in sleety-snowy Washington, around about midday.  Meanwhile, Venezuelan soprano Sofia Kirwan-Baez slipped in, in splendidly soulful isolation, in sleepy-slinky Barnes.  But, yes, it was some hours short of being around about midnight. 

Sofia Kirwan-Baez has started the OSO Arts Centre’s series of Live Lounge, interactive on-line recitals, recreating the ambience of a jazz club.  Here she was back in the second of the continuing series.  Dark drapes and relaxed atmosphere, all that was missing was midnight, lots of cigarette smoke and an audience packed into the space.  Tier 4 has scotched the packed audience, but OSO has recreated the shared experience by preparing a hot supper (this time Stroganoff), although you must eat it at home.  Who needs cigarette smoke, particularly on your hair the next morning?  Midnight came some hours early, but the Live Lounge’s virtual midnight set the atmosphere and the smoky sounds of Kirwan-Baez completed the ambience, with a chatty but intimate, relaxed but animated, style.  She had eschewed her usual black for a colourful peacock blouse, although the fun shades thankfully sat on the piano. 

Kirwan-Baez’s charm comes from an ability to engage with her audience with vivacity, a slow waving of the arms or a thumbs-up cheekily pepping things up.  This was a two-way process, for the audience, although in their own homes, were there via a livestream chat facility, commenting, praising and importantly requesting numbers. 

What were requested?  Jazz standards, show numbers and some current pieces rubbed shoulders with languid classics sung in French or torrid numbers in her native Spanish.

The jazz standards were impressively and beautifully sung.  Cole Porter’s 1944 classic, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye and Meredith Willson’s 1950 show tune ‘Til There Was You, had just the right balance of poignancy and warmth of these post-war nostalgic gentle pieces.

The mood changes, but not the sincerity of the singing, with the traditional folk song, The House of the Rising Sun, retaining the blues feel of a song that became the “first folk rock hit”.  Then, we were transported to the late sixties with the Aretha Franklin version of I Say a Little Prayer For You.

Now which version of a song is the best?   Kirwan-Baez’s touched on the controversy about which version of the gospel-song-evoking Hallelujah was best, the Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley or the many other versions.  With a wry smile, rather than long discussions about chord progression, she made her decision, but she said “Don’t quote me on it”, so I won’t.  Suffice it to say it was better sung here.  However, if you want to know her verdict, the whole Live Lounge session is still available on-line.   

Talking of controversies, what is Elton John’s Tiny Dancer all about?  Could it really be about free-spirit Californians and have nothing to do with Degas’ Petite Danseuse?  Hmm, surely not.  However, much of this Live Lounge session stayed in the USA, reflecting the events of the day.   Although the archetypal protest song, Blowing in the Wind is a child of the sixties, it could be almost an anthem for the Biden followers.  Bob Dylan himself said it is about “those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong”.  At that day’s Inauguration we had seen Lady Gaga singing an anthem designed to unite that nation, but Live Lounge’s choice of her hit, Bad Romance could be a sardonic comment on either side of that divided country.

However, and on a lighter note, it is when crossing the Rio Grande that Kirwan-Baez really comes into her own.  And it is clear that is what her fans want, as there were many requests for numbers in Spanish.   Her skill in Latin American music was epitomised by the famous bolero, written by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, Bésame Mucho.  Kirwan-Baez’s soft but passionate treatment of the lyrics harked back to the dreamy sensuality of the 1940 original.  I expect many of her fans were responding by blowing her lots of kisses.

Nevertheless, it was not in a Spanish song that Kirwan-Baez excelled, but in French.  Of course, it had to be Edith Piaf’s immortalised song to love, La Vie en Rose.  Perfectly rendered, both in words and music, and fervent in its performance, she expressed exactly the powered of infatuated love.   Great stuff, and good to see today’s vie en rose.  In these straightened times, we all need occasionally to see the world through rose-tinted spectacles. 

OSO’s Artistic Director Jonny Danciger has made a wise choice in billing Sofia Kirwan-Baez for every other Live Lounge session.  However, for those who cannot wait, the release of her latest album Take One and a Half comes out on 7th February.  For the others, they will have be like to people of the USA, just Biden their time.  

Thomas Forsythe, January 2021

Photography by Studio 52 and Capitol Records ™

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