Notes of inspiration

By APRIL DIODATO

OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor

In an age of manufactured perfection and omnipresent auto-tuning, Toni Dolce’s “Introduction” is a showcase of raw talent.

The release of classical crossover artist Dolce’s debut album comes one year after her experience on Simon Cowell’s inaugural season of the U.S. version of “The X Factor,” where she wowed the judges through seven rounds of auditions.

“When people listen to my voice and this selection of inspirational songs, I hope that they can hear how much love and energy went into this album,” the Fredonia native singer said.

When the top 70 was narrowed down to 32 on “The X Factor,” her stirring rendition of Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” would ultimately not keep her in the competition, but Dolce would not be dissuaded. Aspiring to become the “female version of Josh Groban,” Dolce immediately started work on her album after returning to New York City, launching a Kickstarter campaign and exceeded her goal in less than a month.

Dolce spent a year collaborating with New York City-based producer Andrew Bove on the inspirational-themed album. They assembled a dream team of arrangers and musicians. Each instrument on the album was recorded live; no samples or synthesizers were used.

Among the arrangers and musicians lending their talent to “Introduction” are Broadway pianist, arranger and producer Dan Lipton, recording for “Introduction” following his work with Sting; LJOVA (Lev Zhurbin), acclaimed violinist and arranger for artists ranging from Yo-Yo Ma to Jay-Z; internationally-famed jazz musician Charlie Porter; Beyonce’s drummer Kimberly Thompson; Matchbox 20’s guitarist Matt Beck, who plays in “Spiderman” on Broadway; and Mike Atkinson, hornist, composer, arranger, producer, and one of the busiest working musicians and arrangers in the business.

“When we first began the creative process, I honestly had no idea how we would get all of the right people together to make the album,” Dolce said. “What I learned was that it never hurts to ask for what you really want.”

Dolce and Bove were connected to Thompson, Beyonce’s drummer, through friends, but when they made the call to see if she was interested and available, Dolce thought she would pass.

“However, after hearing I was recording inspirational music, she made room in her schedule and we had an amazing day of shared creative energy,” Dolce said. “That one call catapulted my confidence to reach out to the other outstanding musicians on the album.”

“Introduction” contains a wide range of influences from many genres, including songs recorded in English, Italian, Spanish and French. There are covers of modern hits, with a classical spin on “Firework” and “Taking Chances,” as well as fresh arrangements of well-loved pieces, with soul-wrenching versions of “Hallellujah,” “Nella Fantasia” and “Beau Soir.”

Mary Spera of Fredonia, who has known Dolce since her middle school days, isn’t surprised to see her singing professionally now.

“I’m very proud of her,” Spera said. “She’s a wonderful talent. She loved to sing all the time, everywhere; her teachers would say, ‘Toni is always singing.'”

Dolce left Western New York for New York City to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. After years of hard work and making ends meet at a karaoke bar in Times Square, Dolce landed the role of Christine in the “Phantom of the Opera,” touring Eastern Europe; sang the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden, and performed at Carnegie Hall in Paul McCartney’s oratorio “Ecce Cor Meum.” This March, she is performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor with the NY Philharmonic, which she’s performed with regularly over the past seven years.

“It’s beyond exciting to be doing what I love and pursuing my gifts,” Dolce said. “I really do have to give a shout-out to the solid music program at Fredonia Central and SUNY Fredonia for giving me a firm foundation. I hope that Sally Pullano, Don Keddie, John Straight and Jack Sternisha know how important they were to me during my formative years. And during my two years at SUNY Fredonia, I was fortunate to have great guidance by David Evans, Julie Newell, and Daniel Ihasz. These teachers are some of the main reasons that I am a singer.”

Each song on “Introduc-tion” includes a dedication, with many nods to her hometown roots. One is for childhood friend, Sarah Zobel of Fredonia, who shortly after graduation was in an unfortunate accident.

“I dedicated ‘Nella Fantasia’ to Sarah because the fantasy world described in the song would be the place where I imagine us reconnecting in our youth, where we were carefree and life was simple and beautiful,” Dolce said. “Growing up, she was a true friend who really believed in my dream and was a true cheerleader.”

Dolce has already received fan mail for her album from Canada, Germany, England, Austria, Italy, France and Japan, and her album is receiving rave reviews on Amazon.com: “You can feel her passion and intensity in every song,” “Toni’s voice is clean, clear and crisp, complimenting the beautiful instrumentals that are present on every track,” “Her voice is so delicate, soothing, and beautiful, it is impossible not to fall in love with the album.”

With her talent and tenacity, it won’t be long before Dolce fulfills another ambition: hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

“Introduction” is available in Fredonia at the Cool Little Music Shop, 65 W. Main St., and the Darwin R. Barker Library, 7 Day St., as well as on iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby and Google Play. For more information on Dolce, visit www.tonidolce.com.

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