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Diva lives up to high expectations

Hayley Westenra: the New Zealand Odyssey, musical director Ian Tilley (piano), Fiona Pears (violin), Simon Lusby (guitar) and Sarah Matthews (cello), Regent on Broadway, Saturday, January 21. RICHARD MAYS was there.

Fans of New Zealand's young diva of high folk music enjoyed plenty of bonuses during the performer's Manawatu debut on Saturday night.

A ticket to Hayley Westenra's New Zealand Odyssey entitled patrons to an atmospheric candlelit stage setting, eloquently understated quartet accompaniment and the charged solo gypsy-flavoured violin of barefooted Kiwi, Fiona - move over Vanessa Mae - Pears.

With her own set, lighting and sound rig, Westenra's short tour of her homeland was offering a full-immersion experience.

The 18-year-old international entertainment phenomenon is not about vocal technique, and it is not technique that her audiences come to hear.

She still has a developing voice.

At times it can be nasal and reedy, but as a performer, Westenra has a quiet indefinable x-factor.

Within her range she can conjure an ethereal Enya-esque tone, while delivering poignancy, as well as interpretations capable of triggering an array of emotional responses.

There are no pretensions. Westentra has an endearing and disarming "You like me, here I am, this is it" quality.

And what better international ambassador could the country have?

She is young, talented, growing as a performer, personable, switched on, generous to her accompanists, obviously artistically well-connected, and is at the forefront of the world's fastest growing musical genre - trad-folk-classical crossover.

From Caccini's Ave Maria, the Mists of Islay and the Mummers' Dance, to Hine e Hine, Never Saw Blue, I Say Grace, and May It Be from Lord of the Rings, with Pears' flashy violin compositions thrown in, the repertoire is tried, accessible and has a universal appeal.

If expectations were for an evening of uplifting arrangements in an enhanced setting, then this was it.

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