In 2020, Emma Pask lost a close friend to breast cancer. She was with the singer when she took her last breath, and the experience had a profound effect. The grief mingled with the guilt that she herself was capable of continuing to sing. And then came the hunger to tick things off his musical list. In case.
Number one on this list was to give a concert of the brilliant songs of Harold Arlen (who composed the music for The Wizard of Oz), and to do it in style, rent Le Studio de l’Opéra.
Pask was first drawn to Arlen’s music as a teenager, when she heard Billie Holiday sing Stormy weather. “I can imagine the days of driving in high school in my parents’ old Holden Kingswood.” she remembers. “I had my Doc Martin steel hooded boots, my black shirt and my hair dyed red – searching for my identity! I was indeed sinking into misery in this quest for identity, just like Billie Holiday’s Stormy weather out of the car.”
But then Pask discovered Arlen’s cheerfulness let’s fall in love, and really enjoyed the way she felt too. And when this “hopelessly melancholy, hopelessly romantic” teenager began building a repertoire as a jazz singer, she kept noticing how many of the songs she loved were Arlen’s.
Arlen was hugely admired by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, but never rose to fame, probably because he didn’t drive him away. “From what I read, he was so immersed in the beauty of creating art,” says Pask. “He always wanted that perfect marriage of words and music, and I read somewhere that he said a song was deficient if you could think of a melody without the words or vice versa.”
On her show, she’ll share stories about Arlen, while helping cement the connection between the songs and her name, rather than the stars who sang them. These include Accentuate the positive (the title of the show), become happy and of The Wizard of Oz, If I only had a brain and above the rainbow. She is joined by her top line trio of pianist Kevin Hunt, bassist Phil Stack and drummer Tim Firth.
Pask first performed at the Opera – the concert hall, no less – with James Morrison in 1995, while still at school. “I was completely out of my depth,” she says, “but just for the ride of, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. I know I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know if I I’m good, but man, I really appreciate that!”