Johnny Mathis’ sensational concert Friday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts felt like a last hurrah for the neglected traditions of song craft, lush orchestration and beautiful singing. An appreciative audience of more than 1,500 rewarded the legendary crooner’s effort with nostalgic sighs and heartfelt applause.
Backed by his longstanding quartet and an orchestra of local musicians, Mathis made a convincing case for the ongoing relevance of his brand of easy listening. Songs referencing golden daffodils, nightingales and valentines may seem hopelessly dated, but Mathis’ rendering of quaint sentiments expressed in unfashionable terms is still capable of stirring listeners.
Like Elvis Presley, Mathis was born in 1935. Yet Mathis’ suave hits in the 1950s and 1960s were the antithesis of the rock ’n’ roll revolution. While Presley and his cohorts were coarse and defiant, Mathis remained smooth and elegant. The dignified approach made Mathis one of the most commercially successful artists of the previous century.
The distinctively silky voice that made Mathis a star is largely intact. Apparently without any artificial enhancement, Mathis came close to duplicating his original performances of decades-old hits. He even flashed the dramatic falsetto employed on his classic 1959 version of “Misty.”
His polished tone and precise enunciation also revived the splendid love song “The Twelfth of Never.” Mathis displayed a rare degree of vulnerability on “A Certain Smile.” Wonderfully anachronistic material including “Moon River” and “It’s All in the Game” contributed to the wistful theme of the evening.
Not every selection dated back to the eras of Eisenhower and Kennedy. An exquisite version of Albert Hammond’s “99 Miles From L.A.” and a faithful reading of Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” brought Mathis’ repertoire up to the mid-1970s. Mathis has recorded so extensively that the truncation of many of his most beloved songs as fleeting segments in medleys was inevitable. Even so, it hurt to hear Mathis only briefly reference hits including “It’s Not for Me to Say” and “Chances Are.”
More perplexing was the separation of Mathis’ two sets by both a comedian and an intermission. Mathis’ performance was so enticing that the 45-minute break between his appearances felt like an eternity. An extended showcase for the orchestra would have served as a far more rewarding interlude. The ensemble’s horn section was underused, although the strings consistently complemented Mathis’ singing.
The refined style Mathis came to define may vanish when his career finally ends. The thought is disheartening. Mathis’ approach may have fallen out of favor, but Friday’s concert confirmed the timelessness of his sophisticated sensibility.