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Take a moment and recall a memory with music at the center. Maybe you hear the low, scratchy voice of a grandmother singing a lullaby, the tune a loved one listens to in the kitchen, the Talking Heads album your dad puts on while working around the house. In our memories, sometimes there are people, places, and feelings that tie inextricably to music. For the first performance of the 2023 Music Carolina Summerfest, soprano Jodi Burns, baritone Thao Nguyen, and pianist Natalie Barela forged a program of music integral to their memories. To organize the panoramic collection of song choices, Burns used the analogy of songs as stars in a constellation. The stars pinpoint moments of our lives and depending on where we are, who we're with, and whether we're faced with a feeling for the first time or the hundredth time, different stars in the figure shine a little brighter. Burns emphasized that everyone carries this constellation with them, that no matter where or when we are, these songs are woven into our lives.
With memories as the overarching theme, Burns and Nguyen took a closer look and found memories in their own lives when music changed them through their journey as artists. Recalling both the first audition he ever sang and his identity as a Vietnamese immigrant, Nguyen sang a classic rendition of Paul Simon's "America." And Burns, contemplating whether or not the lullaby her grandmother used to sing is the same Czech folk song that inspired Dvorak, sang his setting of "Songs My Mother Taught Me." Pianist Natalie Barela joined the program as she shared songs that were part of her upbringing. Raised by her grandmother and inspired by the natural way she sang around the house, Barela led the audience in a sing-along montage of Patsy Cline hits.
In addition to their relatable and convincing storytelling, Burns and Nguyen are just show-stopping singers. Nguyen's background in musical theatre serves him well in the way he's able to maintain energy in the velvety low register of his baritone voice. And Burns' voice is just on another planet, bringing me to tears a handful of times throughout the show. At one point during the performance, Burns explained that singing too quietly used to be a weakness of hers. But after turning it into her 'superpower,' she showed off her ultra-delicate and unbelievable dense altissimo range of singing in L'Heure Exquise by Reynaldo Hahn. Superpower aside, Burns' voice catches your ear in the same way a lustrous pearl catches your eye. But praising Nguyen and Burns as fabulous vocalists isn't quite accurate enough, they are fabulous entertainers! The banter, the emotional interplay, and the lively comedy was just as important to the show as the music. Music Carolina couldn't have asked for a better duo of performers to kick off Summerfest.
Ending with the unforgettable baritone and soprano duet, "All I Ask of You" from The Phantom of the Opera, the program was a great balance of popular music, recognizable music theater hits, and art music. Occasionally I found myself a little lost trying to keep track of the analogies and aphorisms, but ultimately, I think the wandering nature of the program reflected the messiness of life. Not everything makes sense in the moment, but with some perspective, you can start to make sense and find the beauty in it. For Nguyen and Burns, this program was like a telescope aimed at their own song constellations, and by looking at the stars in their skies, they shared the hope that listeners would find meaningful connections to songs in their own lives.