45:55 min • Decca • March 26, 2012
Spearheading a movement must be a good feeling, and last year I wrote an article about how Noah Stewart was at the forefront of the new Neo-Classical scene, and his debut “P’Opera” album does nothing to change that. Everything is covered here, from pop songs to traditional to fully fledged Opera, and in a world saturated with reality TV trying to find the stars of tomorrow, Noah Stewart could be considered very brave.
If I were to judge this album just on the music I would have very little to say about it. His voice is sublime, the song choices are sometimes interesting, sometimes not, and the arrangements are beautiful – but it’s all a bit Radio 4. And that’s fine – but I saw a glimpse of someone who I thought could go outside the box when I saw Noah live last year, and unfortunately his album is nowhere near as diverse as I had hoped, nor as his gig promised.
I like the idea of Noah. I like the fact that, to look at, you would never imagine him as an opera singer, just as very few people could have imagined Susan Boyle to have the voice she did, and that no one who met a 16 year old Amy Winehouse imagined they were meeting a jazz singer. I also like the fact he harks back to a different era. He recalls my childhood memories of Mario Lanza and Maria Callas on cassette or vinyl, the “P’Opera” singers of yesteryear, rather than the Alfie Boe’s or Russell Watson’s that dominate the genre now. My worry is, do I like the idea and persona of Noah more than I like his music? With this in mind, I listened to his album again.
The opening track, the orchestral swell of debut single ‘Without A Song’, is sublime Sunday afternoon listening. Noah’s voice soars over the heavy orchestral backing (which we will notice becomes a theme) and its gorgeously shot black and white video is perfect classical music porn. It’s a very safe opening to a very safe album. The song builds into a massive vocal from Noah, which flies above the beautiful sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra. A question arises; when the first song on your album is that dramatic, pushing all the standard emotional buttons and is that good, where do you go from here? If you’re Noah, apparently nowhere different. The following tracks mostly trace along a similar pattern. The vocal starts off subtle, then it gets big and powerful. The orchestrations are consistently beautiful, and Noah proves over and over again that he can sing better than the majority of opera singers who release albums. I just find it difficult to see in these songs the fire – that passion that makes him want to sing.
In the midst of the beautiful opera and the “p’opera” there are glimmers of hope. ‘Deep River’ follows the same pattern, but is hauntingly beautiful. ‘Cara Mia’ is a million miles away from the original, and sounds right with him singing it. His spanish language version of ‘Fields Of Gold’ by Sting is beautifully sung and has an understated arrangement in comparison to some of the other more overblown songs, as does his version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. The songs are interesting choices for a classical singer, but they are ones that have been done to death. The album really moves into its own with his Italian language version of ‘Nights In White Stain’ by Procol Harem. Its haunting melody lends itself perfectly to an ambient classical interpretation, with its mix of rumbling drums and orchestral backing works very well, but I can’t help feeling it was more interesting live, where the heavy production values didn’t get in the way.
Noah himself says he wants to bring young people to classical music, and there’s no denying that being the first black musician to ever hit number one in the classical charts, he has the hope of doing that. However, for me this album is far too safe in its choices to feel like he’s trailblazing. In fact, I’ve yet to read a review of the album that doesn’t at some point mention Noah’s appearance, and how easy he is on the eye – so maybe it’s not just me that is interested in the whole package rather than just the music. In some ways, Noah is a classical version of Leona Lewis – gorgeous to look at and given one of the best instruments of any modern singer, but I’m yet to hear that spark in their belly that makes them open their mouths to sing. Noah is bound to make Noah Stewart a lot of money, and it will probably be on heavy rotation at dinner parties for many years, helped with the distinction that this debut album is a landmark achievement in classical music. Maybe next time, if he wants to truly bring young people to classical music, his song choices will be a bit more contemporary and a little less obvious. He has revealed that he has Adele, Black Eyed Pea’s and lots of House music on his iPod, so maybe next time we’ll get an Italian orchestral version of ‘Someone Like You’ or ‘Meet Me Halfway’. Now THAT would be interesting.