By Don Heckman
Bossa nova has never needed anything more than a guitar and voice to deliver its message. And the performance by Gal Costa and Oscar Castro-Neves Saturday night in a UCLA Live concert at Royce Hall affirmed just how musically convincing that minimal combination can be.
Costa has been a star of Brazilian music since the Tropicalismo movement of the ‘60s, and Castro-Neves wrote his first hit song, “ Chora Tua Tristeza,” in the mid-fifties when he was sixteen. Individually and in combination, their work reflects the music of Brazil’s past half century.
Costa made it clear at the beginning of the evening, however, that – although her recent recordings embrace many other genres – the duo would concentrate upon bossa nova for this particular concert And, for an American audience (liberally sprinkled with Southland Brazilians), it was an excellent decision. Initially flowing from the compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim and the guitar playing and singing of Joao Gilberto, bossa nova has been, for the past half century, one of the world’s most popular and far reaching international forms of music.
Castro-Neves also mentioned, at one point, that he viewed the program as an evening of intimate music, as though it was being presented in a parlor to a group of friends. And, despite the size of Royce Hall, that’s pretty much how the evening felt from this listener’s perspective, as well. Most of the tunes were delivered in a similar fashion. Castro-Neves played an introduction, either establishing a simmering bossa nova rhythm or laying out some lush arpeggios, and Costa began so sing. Looking elegant in a beautiful gown — her youthful manner and demeanor transforming her sixty-three years into nothing more than a number – she sang with the warm timbre and expressive interpretations that have characterized her work since the beginning.
The duo surveyed most of the classic bossa nova numbers — “Corcovado,” “Desafinado,” “Triste,” “Insensatez,” “A Felicidade” and “”Garota de Ipanema” among them. On many, the Brazilians in the audience sang along with Costa, a common practice in Brazil, underscoring the intimacy of the program. The only English language song (other than a verse in “Garota de Ipanema” – “The Girl From Ipanema”) was “As Time Goes By,” sung by Costa with the same sort of convincing, story-telling qualities she brought to the other songs. And, with “Aquarela do Brasil,” her singing and Castro-Neves stirring guitar rhythms provided an echo of the samba foundations of bossa nova.
On several numbers – including a lush rendering of “Dindi” – Castro-Neves moved to the piano. On others, he used his guitar to trigger string pad samples, adding an atmospheric, orchestral sound behind his guitar.
Ultimately, however, it was the songs, and the rich artistry that Costa and Castro-Neves brought to them, that mattered in these memorable interpretations of some of the 20th century’s most compelling music.