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Wednesday, November 23rd, 2004_

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Hayley Westenra @ Bridgewater Hall

Review by James Ellaby

The question of whether Hayley Westenra is really a "classical" artist or not will probably rage on for as long as she is making records. Given that she's only 17, that's a long time. The purists may well argue that she is a "pop star" version of a classical artist, much as Norah Jones is castigated by the jazz police, but while both are making such quality music and selling so many millions of CDs, they won't really care, and neither did an ecstatic Bridgewater Hall audience last night.

Even though this is the second time this year that Westenra has visited Manchester, and even though she had only a re-released album to promote, the Hall was still packed, and she still went down a treat, taking numerous bows at the end. This time she had left her younger siblings at home and was joined by Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis. Ushered onstage by the Heart of England Chamber Ensemble, conduted by Ben Foster and featuring violinist Fiona Pears, Westenra unleashed her weapon of mass enchantment, that voice, singing Amazing Grace.

Hayley Westenra

Some songs have been done so many times that you can grow tired of hearing them, and not many versions of this song stand up to Aretha Franklin's gospel classic, but with a voice as pure (hence her album title) as the driven snow and as beautiful as a mountain stream, the audience was quickly captivated by young Hayley. However, after the poppy Who Painted The Moon Black?, she was off already to go and change her frock. On bounded the charismatic and swarthy Frangoulis, whose shaky English easily endeared him to the crowd, while his impressive operatics - if a little out of tone with the main fare - were equally popular.

Dress changed, the New Zealand pixie returned to sing a few songs from her expanded album, as well as telling us all about her GCSEs, which she recently completed. Her stage manner is a pleasant mix of confidence and youthful shyness, and her grin during each applause certainly seemed very genuine, which only makes the crowd applaud more. It's easy to forget while she is singing just how young Westenra is, but the sight of her "professional" demeanour melting into a cheesy grin every time is infectiously appealing.

But, almost as soon as she had arrived, it was time for the interval, and we had barely heard six songs from the main act yet. The second half began with two violin jam sessions written by and starring fellow New Zealander Pears, who stomped round the stage by a mad Vanessa Mae. It was hugely entertaining, but not what the audience had paid to see. With a third dress on, Westenra was back on stage for three more perfect songs before leaving the stage to Frangoulis again.

He was well received and impressed again with more songs from his new album, and won yet more applause for saying how nice we all were and how great it was to end the UK tour in Manchester. However, he was soon off again and we were treated to the fourth and final new dress, which was even sparklier than the previous three and won applause, much to Hayley's obvious delight. She was even more excited when telling us that she was about to sing a song called "Bridal Ballad", which is to feature in Al Pacino's forthcoming Merchant of Venice.

But soon, it was time to go, and she departed yet again. Thankfully it was only a brief 'walk to the stage door and turn around for the inevitable encores' kind of exit, and she returned - in the same pretty dress - to sing us a rapturously-received rendition of her signature tune "Pokarekare Ana". For those few minutes, you could have closed your eyes and been sitting in an idyllic New Zealand valley, with the sound of trickling water the only distraction from that voice. She was back again for another Maori song "Hine Hine", welcoming Frangoulis on to join in and share in the many ovations that they both richly deserved.

While the format of the show makes for a rather fragmented experience, and not ALL of the dress changes were surely necessary, there is no questioning Hayley Westenra's pure talent. Hopefully in years to come, her management will feel able to let her take a rather more dominant role in her concerts, because this felt a little like a variety show rather than the Hayley Westenra show. No matter how impressive Frangoulis and Pears were, there was no doubting who the star should have been, and when she is older and stronger, surely she will be given free reign to really make the most of her voice. But this will do for now...

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Infolink thanks to Keith S.


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