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Petra Haden and choir give soaring voice to movie scores at the Getty

Tanya Haden

You’ll believe a woman can fly…

Well, it almost felt that way Saturday evening at the J. Paul Getty Museum. On stage at the Harold M. Williams Auditorium, a black-clad 13-person choir, formed in an arc behind Petra Haden, was singing the intro of an a cappella arrangement of John Williams’ theme music from the 1978 movie Superman — the first starring Christopher Reeves as the Man of Steel. 

Haden, up front in a contrasting white dress, stood with her eyes half closed, singing her part of the vocal orchestration, and as the music built to a crescendo a blissful smile spread across her face and her arms slowly lifted from her sides up to over her shoulders and for a second it seemed as if she might actually rise from the stage. 

This was a highlight of highlights of the concert, celebrating the release of and showcasing the music from Haden’s new album, Petra Goes to the Movies

She was certainly soaring emotionally. The audience too. After the show, Haden’s sister (and one-time That Dog bandmate) Rachel said that she could hardly restrain herself from standing and singing in joy at that Superman moment.  And she probably was not alone. The concert was filled with such effervescent delight.

As Haden explained to Alex Cohen on Take Two recently, the album collects some of her favorite movie music, tied to her life-long love of cinema scores. The renditions are largely realized in all-vocal arrangements, meticulously constructed by her, layering her voice in overdubs to create the full orchestrations. 

It was a tricky but remarkably successful project. She doesn't imitate the instruments per se, but honors the distinctive soundscapes wrought by a diverse cast of composers: neoclassicist Williams, spaghetti-western-and-so-much-more king Ennio Morricone (A Fistful of Dollars),  iconoclast Bernard Hermann (Psycho, Taxi Driver), current, innovative modernists Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) just to name a few. 

But bringing it to life on stage was the ultimate treat, for artist and audience alike. Music from Cool Hand Luke, Fellini’s 8 ½ (by composer Nino Rota), My Bodyguard (not to be confused with Bodyguard, Haden reminded the audience, before launching into a brief “I-AY-AY-AY-AY…. will always love YOUUUU” aside), as well as the titles already cited posed steep challenges, which Haden and choir met with both accomplishment and charm. At times it recalled the Swingle Singers’ jazzed-up Bach, at others the demanding modern work of such groups as the Hilliard Ensemble. 

A mid-concert interlude had Haden joined by several instrumentalists for songs featuring lyrics, including the David Bowie/Pat Metheny collaboration “This Is Not America” from The Falcon and the Snowman and “It Might Be You” from Tootsie (did you remember that there was a song from Tootsie?). 

Many of the pieces were visually illustrated by projected photos art-directed and shot by Steven Perilloux, placing Haden in indelibly iconic scenes from the respective films: Paul Newman contemplatng the table of eggs in Cool Hand Luke, Janet Leigh showering in Psycho, steely-eyed Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, a Mohawked Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Dustin Hoffman in full-spangled Tootsie drag and, of course, bespectacled Reeves peeling open his Clark Kent suit shirt to reveal the undergarment emblazoned with a big….. P.

Supplementing the Movies selections were a few choice side-trips: “Tattoo” from Haden’s 2007 a cappella version of the Who’s 1967 album The Who Sell Out — her stylistic predecessor to the new one — brought out a real Gilbert & Sullivan element to the witty Pete Townshend vignette. A Tuvan song she’d recorded before with guitarist Bill Frisell showed a different side of her talents. And, to encore, the ensemble rendered the Beach Boys‘ complex “God Only Knows,” the choir dispersing into the theater’s aisles to encourage the audience members to join in on the song’s lovely, canonic coda. Haden stood alone on stage with a smile even bigger than in her Superman moment.

“I’m so happy having this choir perform my childhood dream of movie music,” she beamed right before that encore.

Look, up in the sky...

Petra Haden, the choir and musicians will do this again Feb. 9 at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Los Angeles, topping a bill that also includes the Portland Cello Project and the Alialujah Choir.