Classics for the middle of the road

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Classics for the middle of the road

Classical - Hayley Westenra - London Palladium - Stephen Pettitt

LET me be very clear. Whatever category this review appears under, the teenage New Zealander Hayley Westenra, whose album Pure seems to have captured the public's imagination, is about as much a classical artist as The Sun is classical literature. It is her record company, Decca, that has placed her in that niche, there to rub shoulders with the likes of feeble-voiced Russell Watson and Andrea Bocelli.

Classical music, as I understand it, aspires to refinement, to substance. It challenges, illuminates, awakens complex emotions, stimulates the grey matter, and preferable all at once. It is certainly not the banal middle-of-the-road material which Westenra gave us here.

But if classical Westenra is deemed to be, classical standards she must ruthlessly be judged by. Here, backed by an eight-piece band calling itself the English Session Orchestra (what's wrong with the word "octet"?) and with everything miked to the skies, Westenra showed nothing more than that she has oodles of confidence and a rather sweet, folkish teenager's voice that reminded me of Enya or Mary Hopkin.

She sand songs to suit. Some folk material from New Zealand. Some unspecial songs written for her. A couple of sentimental nasties based on Vivaldi's Winter and Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte. Franck's Panis Angelicus, with the piping voice of younger sister Sophie.

On this evidence I cannot imagine progress to Schubert or opera.

This being a pop concert, there were supporting acts. The opening set came from the boys' choir Libera. They sing nicely, and maybe they would sound good without the electronic assistance and in repertoire more testing than this saccharine Songs of Praise fare. And young Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins at least offered versions of genuine classics - the Habanera from Carmen, Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga from Rinaldo - alongside the predictable Welsh folk material. Yet, though classically trained, hers is also an immature voice, one that would find it difficult to qualify for a place in a provincial opera company chorus. Image is everything in the world, however, and hers has already netted her a lucrative six-album deal.

It deeply depresses me.

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Readers' Comments:

For those who haven't been a part of this discussion, a "review" of Hayley's Palladium concert was made in the London Evening Standard by Stephen Pettitt.

The email below is a brief introduction to the so-called reviewer. The review itself is directly above, and thanks to one of the groups' members (I won't mention any names without permission), the email address for the Standard has also been provided. I have also included the postal address for those who wish to write a response. Other contact details for the Evening Standard are at the bottom of this email.


Postal Address:
The Evening Standard,
Northcliffe House,
2 Derry Street,
London W8 5TT
020 7938 6000

Such an attack by someone who is not only uninterested in Hayley or the type of music she promotes, but who blatantly goes out of his way to attack her makes me wonder not only about the effect that article will obviously have on Hayley, but also on others, such as Holly and those who love this music as much as we all do. I only hope that our responses to this so-called "review" will help people realise that the music produced by Hayley and others is vital, and that it won't put off young, aspiring musicians from moving in that direction themselves.

I am not only disappointed and annoyed with Pettitt, but sickened that such a sweet young woman and her family could be harrassed in such a way.

All I can say is that I am proud to listen to Hayley's music, both live and on CD. I am proud to have had the chance to see her perform, to have met her, Sophie, Jill, Gerald and Steve, and very, very proud to be from Christchurch.



New Zealand (currently UK domiciled)

Subject: London Evening Standard Review

For those intending to write to the London Evening Standard with regards to the "review" written by Stephen Pettitt on Hayley's Concert at the Palladium, a little background on the "reviewer" might be helpful.

Stephen Pettitt's personal website can be found at This is a single page, full of links to various sites and mentioning his many achievements. The language used in this page is beyond what one would normally use to make themselves more attractive to prospective employers in their resume, and shows the self-important nature in which Pettitt obviously holds himself. The repetitive use of the word "important" when referring to his "many" achievements is further proof of this.

Furthermore, he refers to his Chairmanship of a company that administers a website,
Upon looking through the basic information available here, it shows that Pettitt is not only a purist, but an Opera purist.

The so-called "review" on Hayley's performance obviously shows little interest in the type of music to which she and others have chosen, but rather only an interest in the field that he calls classical, which should in fact be referred to as classical opera, a field that Hayley herself has stated that she knows little about and would not place herself into.

Pettitt is obviously as suited to reviewing Hayley's work as I am to reviewing that which is known as modern art. He is the type of purist who obviously believes that Classical music, Opera, should be kept for the very few individuals who are "cultured" enough to appreciate it.

Obviously I will be writing to the Evening Standard to express my disdain over this matter, and suggesting that Pettitt apologise to Hayley for his act of pure snobbery, but I thought that a little background on this writer might also be helpful.



New Zealand (currently UK domiciled)

Subject: Stephen Pettitt's review of the Hayley Westenra Palladium concert

To whom it may concern,

I travelled from The Netherlands specifically to attend Hayley Westenra's concert at the Palladium on March 29 - and I find Mr. Pettitt's review of that concert an unworthy piece of gutter-press journalism.

I don't mind criticism being expressed - but that has to be done in a credible way. Mr. Pettitt's review lacks any semblance of credibility. Rather, it has the appearance of a reviewer wallowing in his own mud, and revelling in it.

If there is someone who needs to do a bit of growing up, it is Stephen Pettitt. A reviewer who is not capable of keeping his personal bias against a certain style of music out of his reviews is not worthy of doing a review.

I don't understand the London Evening Standard. Why do you send a high-brow operatic purist snob like Mr. Pettitt to do a review of a concert like this? You don't have to send someone who likes this type of music. In fact, it won't harm any fan of any performer to be confronted with balanced criticism. But don't you have someone who can at least keep his personal bias out of a review? Mr. Pettitt's review is a worthless piece of journalism. It doesn't provide a proper review. It only provides an insight in Mr. Pettitt's bias against this type of music. As such, it doesn't even bear the proper characteristics of a well-written letter to the editor by an ordinary reader.

The purist operatic world has a longstanding image problem of snobbery, in that it doesn't look kindly upon artists popularising classical material. Mr. Pettitt hasn't done that world any favours by perpetuating and reinforcing this image.

The British press in general has a long-standing image of gutter press mud slinging and putting down real quality, certainly outside Britain. The London Evening Standard hasn't done the British press any good by perpetuating and reinforcing this image.

Long live the new generation of young performers like Hayley Westenra, Katherine Jenkins and Libera - who are approachable and perform an admirable job in popularising classical music. Even if they fall short of the stuffy operatic perfectionism which Mr. Pettitt advocates, they provide real listening pleasure, and help in breaking down the conservatism of classical operatic community.


The Netherlands

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Image scan from "The London Evening Standard" for March 30th, 2004

Thanks to Keith S. for this scan


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