July 4th, 2004

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Hayley Westenra sings her way up

By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff

NEW YORK -- The vocalist who will accompany the Boston Pops on its 2004 Holiday Tour is not a beloved pop singer. Nor is she an operatic soloist. She is star of neither stage nor screen, and although the chatty New Zealand teen has performed for the Queen of England, odds are good you've never heard of Hayley Westenra -- who on a recent afternoon was sitting in a Manhattan cafe picking at a plate of undressed lettuce and marveling with equal enthusiasm at her rabbit's cage break and her record-breaking climb up the classical music charts.

At 17, Westenra is a sweet-natured, high-spirited, clear-eyed girl who is methodically going about the business of becoming an international singing sensation. Her debut album for Britain's Decca label, the well-titled "Pure," has been certified twice-platinum in that country, making Westenra the fastest-selling classical artist in UK history.

"I'm quite disciplined," she says in a runaway New Zealand lilt. "The most important thing is to eat healthily and get plenty of sleep. I get my schoolwork done. I just sort of deal with each thing as it comes, one thing at a time, and don't look too far ahead. This is what I've spent my whole life dreaming about."

At 12, Westenra was busking on the streets of Christchurch, singing arias and Bee Gees tunes in an angelic soprano and saving up to make a recording at a local studio over the school holidays. Westenra's mother, Jill, made cardboard CD covers at the kitchen table and hand-delivered them to friends and fans and, on a long shot, a few local record companies. Universal New Zealand offered Westenra a deal before they'd even met her, and in 2000, then 13-year-old Westenra released the first of two hit albums in New Zealand. When Decca president Costa Pilavachi heard one of the recordings by chance, he was so impressed that he got on a plane to New Zealand to offer her a $4.5 million, five-album contract in person.

Westenra made her US solo debut last month at Joe's Pub in New York (where she returns Aug. 4) and spent a good part of the spring on a Radio Disney-sponsored middle school tour -- a pair of promotional tacks that seem to make strange bedfellows until Marc Johnston, senior vice president and general manager of Universal Classics Group, explains that "a lot of the Radio Disney audience is moms listening with their kids."

Westenra's audience is as broad as her taste in material, which falls squarely into the vast and vague classical crossover category. Her hero, Andrea Bocelli, and Josh Groban have both carved massively successful careers with repertoires much like Westenra's, which includes Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights," the New Zealand folk song "Pokarekare Ana," an excerpt from Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," and a handful of ballads. "Pure," on which she is backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was produced by Giles Martin, son of Sir George, who himself contributed a pop song ("Beat of Your Heart") and an arrangement for "Amazing Grace."

"I love having the variety," says Westenra, whose porcelain complexion alone justifies the album's title, never mind her spring-fed soprano and wholesome upbringing. "There's something for everyone on my album."

"I see her almost as a classical singer-songwriter," says Giles Martin, who has also worked with Elvis Costello, Sting, and the Medici String Quartet. "I wanted to keep things as organic and real as possible, not overly sweet or too sophisticated. Hayley is a real girl, very kind and compassionate and also very straightforward. She has a great voice and she knows what she's good at, and with that you're halfway there."

Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart has worked with his share of young musicians. He first heard Westenra six months ago, when her career was beginning to explode in Europe, and agreed that she would be perfect for a Pops holiday tour, which takes place Nov. 28-Dec. 9.

"I'm not a big fan of the latest flavor-of-the month kid," Lockhart says. "I think they're often the products of media hype and that frankly what happens in the process also amounts to child abuse, being pushed beyond their maturity level. But I think Hayley is being well managed, conservatively managed, and her voice is just beautiful."

Westenra's father, Gerald, a gemologist, has been traveling with his daughter for the past six months; his wife, Jill, was on the road during the preceding half year. The whole family, including 14-year-old Sophie and 10-year-old Isaac, has taken up residence in New York City for the summer -- during which time Hayley will fly to LA to tape an episode of the NBC hit series "American Dreams," jet to New Zealand to film a PBS "Great Performances" special, record songs for several movie scores, appear as a featured performer with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and study for her November exams.

"Occasionally I feel overwhelmed," she says. "I've started writing in a diary, which I haven't done in a while, and I can always talk to mum and dad. Sometimes I do miss home. But if I were home, not doing what I'm doing, I would be dreaming about it. So I just want to continue recording and performing and hopefully moving up. That's what everyone wants, isn't it?"


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Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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