Preview: Olivia Newton-John feels at home in many genres


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In a way, Olivia Newton-John is coming full circle.

More than 40 years ago, she hit the music charts with "Banks of the Ohio," a single from her debut album, "If Not for You."

Saturday night, Ms. Newton-John will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall.

"I should probably put that song in," she said when asked about the ballad in a telephone interview. "Coming to Pittsburgh, I think 'Banks of the Ohio' would be a good one to put back in. I don't do it all the time."

Olivia Newton-John with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Where: Heinz Hall

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $35 to $125; 412-392-4900 or pittsburghsymphony.org

With Grammy-winning hits stretching across music genres from country to pop to disco to Broadway, Ms. Newton-John, 64, has a rich catalog from which to choose. The set lists, she said, varies with the venues.

Her current tour, which started in September, has been "a strenuous one," she said, and only some of the dates involve working with an orchestra.

"They're different because not all songs work with orchestras," she said.

This show is likely to have a Christmas feel to it, especially as Ms. Newton-John promotes a new holiday album, "This Christmas," recorded with her former "Grease" co-star, John Travolta. The artists, who hadn't worked together in more than 30 years, are donating proceeds from the sales to their respective charities, the Jett Travolta Foundation and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

The album includes a number of medleys with other artists -- including Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and Kenny G -- as well as a nonholiday song, "I Think You Might Like It," which was written by John Farrar as a sequel to his "You're the One That I Want" from "Grease."

"I'm very excited about it," said Ms. Newton-John, who has recorded her fair share of Christmas songs. "It's a very fun album, a very happy album. And I've never recorded a holiday album with John. And he loves Christmas music. They're his favorite kind of songs. So he's thrilled."

Ms. Newton-John said she expects Saturday's show to be a bit of give-and-take. She'll be performing songs that the audience knows. The return, she said, is the enthusiasm of the audience.

"Big cities are usually more exuberant," she said. "Some places are more shy. It varies geographically. The more you travel, you notice that. I feel it the minute I walk out. I can tell what mood they're in. You can feel it from the opening song. 'Are they with me or do I have to win them over? Are they shy?'

"You know, it's really very interesting, how you pick up on that energy. And I like to think that I'm sensitive to it. I love it. It makes it fun for us."

She said the audiences have responded well, partly because they're hearing the songs they know, performed the way they remember them.

Ms. Newton-John has the advantage of being able to sing something for just about anybody. When she first broke into the business, artists tended to fall into clearly defined categories.

"I don't think the world's like that so much any more," she said. "Back in the day, when I was starting out, you were either a country singer or a pop singer. John Denver and I were among the first to cross over, as they called it in those days.

"Now it's opened up and people can have hits all over the place. They do different mixes of songs for different stations and such. Artists singing with different artists.

"I didn't set out to be a trailblazer. I didn't really go after it. It happened. Then I heard the people in Nashville at that time were not thrilled because here I was an Australian girl recording songs in England with an Englishman who wrote it and produced it. I won awards, but I wasn't popular at first.

"Then it opened the doors for a lot of other people and suddenly they liked me. I didn't really do anything. I just sang the songs. Interesting how life happens."

music

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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