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Barbra Streisand's fifth television special scored respectable ratings from viewers, but it was poorly-received by most critics and it is commonly considered one of her weakest efforts. The special's negative reputation is somewhat of a mystery, however, as AND OTHER MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS is a stunning achievement that was significantly ahead of it's time. The idea of performing songs (both old and new) with arrangements that incorporate instruments from around the world is a terrific idea, and the whole concept is entertainingly and cleverly executed. Tying it all together is the most amazing instrument of them all - Barbra's indescribably beautiful voice, which soars above even the most towering and complex arrangements, while always finding the emotional core to each song. The opening medley of "Sing" and "Make Your Own Kind of Music" is an outstanding number that sets the pace for the enthralling set pieces that are yet to come.
The first Act of the special is extremely inventive and visually stunning, as Streisand uses the Gershwins' immortal "I Got Rhythm" as the framework of a 14-minute medley that takes listeners on a musical tour of the world. While wearing the same simple dress design, Barbra augments her appearance with accessories appropriate to each Continent and Country being represented. Backed by an array of East Indian instruments, Barbra delivers marvelously sensual performances of "Johnny One Note" and "One Note Samba," capping things off with just the right amount of humor. She then performs an achingly beautiful rendition of Rogers and Hart's "Glad To Be Unhappy," which is given a gorgeous Japanese arrangement. Streisand's signature numbers like "People," "Second Hand Rose," and "Don't Rain On My Parade" are performed to the accompaniment of Turkish-Armenian, Spanish, Native American, African, and Irish instruments, which brings fresh interpretations to such well-loved songs. To top it off, Streisand ends the medley with a phenomenal 23-second note that broke the previous record for the longest sustained note set by Ima Sumac.
The second Act opens as Barbra is deserted by the musicians as she sings "Don't Ever Leave Me," only to find herself surrounded by then-state-of-the-art electronic sound equipment. After performing an echo-filled rendition of "By Myself," Streisand then launches into a humorous, breakneck version of "Come Back To Me" while in competition with her own pre-recorded vocal track. Next, Barbra is joined by special guest Ray Charles, who contributes a memorable performance of "Look What They've Done To My Song, Mama." Charles then duets with Barbra on a wrenching, soulful rendition of Buck Owen's country classic "Crying Time," which remains possibly Barbra's finest recorded duet. Barbra then really brings down the house with a intensely passionate performance of "Sweet Inspiration," with Charles' accompanying her on the Hammond B3 organ and his backup singers, the Raylettes, providing effective harmony vocals.
Some classical music enthusiasts were outraged when Streisand performed Schubert's masterpiece "Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen" in a highly campy manner, however, Streisand's tongue-in-cheek take on the classic piece is all in good fun. The high point of the entire special, however, is the absolutely gorgeous version of "I Never Has Seen Snow," one of Harold Arlen's most underrated compositions. Streisand is arguably the best interpreter of Arlen's work, and her performance here is absolutely spin-tingling. In fact, the whole special is worth watching for "I Never Has Seen Snow" alone. Streisand also delivers a tour de force rendition of one her best-loved signature numbers, the stirring "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," a challenging song that really displays what an incredible vocalist Streisand truly is.
On a slightly lessor note, the "household appliance" number, "The World is a Concerto" (which probably sounded hilarious on paper), is too gimmicky to really succeed as intended. The concept of Barbra singing a song to the accompaniment of everyday household appliances was a funny enough idea, but the "music" produced by the appliances is more distracting than humorous in execution. As is, the song is an amusing novelty, but lacks true aesthetic value. Making up for this minor misstep, however, is the closing, choral rendition of Richard Rodgers' "The Sweetest Sounds," which is absolutely heavenly. Barbra's restrained performance of this understated standard is overflowing with the hushed intensity that has always been one of the most beautiful aspects of her incomparable singing voice.
In spite of it's unfairly negative reputation, AND OTHER MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS remains a terrific and adventurous television special that is essential viewing for all fans of the ultimate diva. It's a shame that this inventive, entertaining, and fun television special has yet to be embraced by the entertainment community, yet, like any project ahead of it's time, perhaps it will one day find a greater audience.
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