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MUSIC REVIEW

Teen soprano Westenra is a talented work in progress

Charlotte Church seems to have vanished somewhere into the Bermuda Triangle among the personas of teen angel, teen vixen, and young adult. So Hayley Westenra has come along in the nick of time.

The 17-year-old soprano is a year younger than Church and still securely on the teen-angel side of the triangle. She started recording in her native New Zealand at 13; a couple of years ago she signed a $2 million contract with Decca, and her first international album, "Pure," has sold more than2 million copies so far.

She's breaking into the American market with TV appearances, a filmed concert being aired this month during PBS pledge periods, and appearances with the Boston Pops. On Thursday afternoon, she was in Symphony Hall for a concert that was being taped for next year's Holiday Pops television show.

Westenra is still a bud, not a blossom. She doesn't know what to do with her hands and body yet, but this contributes to her appeal -- she seems more natural and sincere than most of the "American Idol" finalists who've absorbed mannerisms not their own (or for that matter, little Jesse Goldberg, 10, who sang "I Wonder as I Wander" on the same program quite nicely but with the self-assurance of a Vegas headliner like Celine Dion).

Westenra's tone is sweet, true, and unspoiled, and she sings with a strong musical instinct, like a folk singer; think young Joan Baez. Westenra's voice is still a work in progress, and she knows it, so she doesn't push her luck by imitating Church in programming big opera arias she doesn't have the technique to sing.

Her chief technical liability at the moment is very shallow (and noisy) breathing, which makes it difficult for her to create or shape longer phrases. Also because the breath isn't in place early enough, there is often a little hitch or glitch before the tone actually appears. For the most part, though, Westenra is smart enough to stay within a modest vocal range and sing in comfortable keys.

The one exception was the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" on Thursday. She sang this in a low key so she could avoid having to scream high notes, but this deposited her on some low notes that aren't in her voice yet, so she vanished out of earshot. She also sang this in a ghastly arrangement that pretty much disposed of the Bach portion of the equation. The first prelude from "The Well-Tempered Clavier" over which Gounod spun his beloved melody remained mostly as a harmonic sequence.

She was much more effective in her other two solos, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which she delivered with charm and feeling. She indulged in some quiet banter with conductor Keith Lockhart ("You make me feel old," he said) and returned toward the end for a pretty duet on "Away in a Manger" with the program's other vocalist, country singer Collin Raye.

In his set, Raye proved an affable personality and an honest singer, although "O Holy Night" is a pretty steep challenge for him. He introduced a new Christmas song, "It Could Happen Again," based on a story of how soldiers on both sides in World War I suspended battle for Christmas and joined in exchanging cigarettes and songs.

The Seven Hills Show Choir from Worcester, performers even younger than Westenra, sang their hearts out in "Light the Candles All Around the World" and joined Lockhart, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the audience, and Santa Claus in the Christmas sing-along; the Tanglewood chorus delivered "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in sign language.

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