Whether or not you consider Barbra Streisand the last reigning diva of a more lyrical period in American pop music, she certainly stands as a symbol of the era that gave us Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Doris Day, Sarah Vaughan and other inimitable melody-makers.
So a sense of occasion surrounded the United Center on Friday night, when Streisand returned to the same outsized venue she played six years ago in another one of her rare returns to a concert world she always has said she's reluctant to play.
Now, however, Streisand is 70, an age that inevitably involves looking back and taking measure of what has happened. In Streisand's case, that means she remembers personal milestones that most of us shared with her, from films such as "Funny Girl" and "Hello, Dolly!" to pop anthems such as "People," "Evergreen" and "The Way We Were." Say what you will about the sentimental effusions of those songs, they were ubiquitous at a certain juncture in American popular culture and made Streisand a fixture in it.
Listening to Streisand return to these landmarks, and others, said a great deal indeed about the passage of time and, as she says, the way we were. Marvin Hamlisch, a longtime Streisand collaborator and friend, died last August at age 68, and his passing – and the role he played in Streisand's life and art – inspired a key segment of the evening.
More important, you could sense the effects of the flow of time on Streisand's instrument and delivery. Though still sounding remarkably sumptuous for someone her age, or any age, Streisand showed somewhat less vocal heft than before, a bit less tonal sheen. Her voice is thinner on top, huskier on the bottom.
Though she still had huge notes to deliver, she doled them out more sparingly than in the past, tapping her full vocal resources at particular passages and taking care not to squander them. That she punctuated a show than ran more than 21/2 hours (including intermission) with appearances by various guest performers – enabling her to periodically leave the stage and rest – only added to the sense of a great star shrewdly making the most of what she has to give.
Even Streisand's between-song patter referenced the calendar, as in a section of the evening in which she read questions from the audience that had been submitted in advance. One referred to Streisand as a "living legend," prompting her to quip that she didn't mind the term so long as the word "living" were still in it.
Yet all these indications of years gone by made her performance that much more compelling and rendered this concert one of the most satisfying she has given Chicago. If Streisand's work in her prime was, above all, about The Voice – its size, its luxuriance, its silken purity – this time the singer plumbed more deeply into the meaning of the song. Yes, she still lavished plenty of sound on the old warhorses, but the slight grain in her tone, the occasional interruption in a line, even the random errant pitch made her work sound more genuine, vulnerable, meaningful and real. This time, the proceedings were less about The Voice and more about the music.
Because of the inclusion of the aforementioned guest artists, as well as Streisand's periodic costume changes, the evening felt much like a TV variety show of the 1960s, though quaintly so. But the show, which Streisand titled "Back to Brooklyn," so elegantly transitioned between Streisand's segments and those of some dubiously chosen colleagues that the guests seemed like minor irritants rather than major distractions.
From the initial phrases of the opening song, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," there was no question that Streisand was fully engaged with the score, the singer bending notes and embellishing lines slightly, showing this was going to be no mere rote recitation of familiar repertoire. Backed by a large orchestra of Los Angeles and Chicago players, Streisand took "Nice 'n' Easy" at an unusually slow tempo, stretching its lines like taffy. The purr she brought to "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and the cunningly paced climax she delivered in "Didn't We" – which drew predictable screams from a nearly filled stadium – underscored the degree of vocal and musical control she maintains.
In Hamlisch's "The Way We Were," sung while a montage of photos of Streisand with the composer played on large screens above her, the singer shaped phrases artfully, but with less exaggeration than in the past. Less bombast and narcissism, too, Streisand performing the piece on a decidedly human scale and with palpable melancholy. She clearly sang this one to Hamlisch, and you could feel it.
The autumnal sentiments she expressed in a slow-and-dreamy account of "Here's to Life," which jazz-blues master Joe Williams made a signature back in the 1990s, again spoke to the nostalgic character of much of this evening. And Streisand performed "People" with a surprising degree of intimacy, quite a feat in the cavernous United Center, making the song less a showpiece and more a straightforward declaration.
If Streisand had to include guests to lighten her load and vary the tone of her show, however, there must have been more genuine options than the ones she chose. Imagine a juvenile version of Andrea Bocelli, times three, and you have Il Volo, a trio of bleating tenors who sing every note as if it's the climax of "La Forza del Destino." Trumpeter Chris Botti's pallid impersonation of a jazz musician might not have been quite so offensive if his musical clichés hadn't been bathed in over-reverberation.
Offspring of major performers usually disappoint, but Jason Gould – the son of Streisand and Elliott Gould – acquitted himself remarkably well, considering unavoidable comparisons. Duetting with his mother in "How Deep is the Ocean" and singing solo in "This Masquerade," Gould offered an uncommonly warm tenor that he knows how to use. His tone may have been needlessly breathy at times and his lines encumbered with a few too many melodic ornaments, but the luster of his sound and naturalness of his phrasing were beyond dispute.
Yet did Streisand really need to include guest violinist Caroline Campbell, whose over-amplified, faux-classical noodling would have fared much better as background music in a luxury spa?
For the dramatic peak of the evening, Streisand convened her entire entourage of guests, plus choir, for Leonard Bernstein's "Make Our Garden Grow," from "Candide." The chorale-like simplicity of this work, plus Streisand's unadorned way of delivering it, said a great deal about the artist she has become.
She's not the come-worship-me caricature of a distant past, and her music is the better for it.