Review: Audra McDonald wows, last week brimmed with good singing
Special to The Aspen Times
Broadway headliner Audra McDonald knocked ’em dead on Thursday night in a Benedict Music Tent concert that drew extensively from the Great American Songbook. In more ways than one, it was the obvious high note of the week, but plenty of impressive singing highlighted other performances.
Backed by a big orchestra made up of students (plus concertmaster Renata Arado) and her own jazz trio, conducted by the irrepressible Andy Einhorn, McDonald charmed an enthusiastic audience with personal reflections and used her classically-trained voice to make her own mark on a wide range of songs — some familiar, some not.
The only person to win Tonys in all four acting categories (both plays and musicals), she fashioned a program of 15 vocal numbers that included a smart medley linking two songs into a comment about prejudice — Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” — sung as lullabies. Another medley tellingly matched two seemingly unrelated Bernstein songs: “Some Other Time” and “Somewhere,” both sumptuously sung about love that circumstance would keep from happening.
There were familiar tunes, such as Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” in a clever arrangement that began with the slow explanatory verse before it broke into an impressively played (and sung) jazz rhythm. McDonald turned Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” into a sing-along (not a bad idea when actual opera singers populated the audience).
Less-familiar fare included “Cornet Man” a sexy faux-blues from Jule Styne’s “Funny Girl” and “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” from Comden and Green’s “Hallelujah Baby.” McDonald found a way to personalize the stories and pump plenty of life into them.
Most striking was an incendiary “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy,” which closed the first half. (She could make a great Mama Rose — hint, hint.) The encore layered “Happy Days Are Here Again” with “Get Happy” (with credit to Mel Tormé for the idea). Einhorn’s surprisingly good singing voice resulted in a joyful duet.
The singing was very different on Wednesday in Harris Hall. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor had raised expectations with her fervent singing in Sunday’s miraculous Mahler Third. As the program notes framed it, the recital of art songs explored “the gamut of the human spirit.”
Of special interest was “Sonnets to Orpheus,” set to five poems (in German) by Rainer Maria Rilke. Robert Spano, the festival’s music director, wrote the music expressly for O’Connor in 2020 as a project during the pandemic and played the piano for this recital with sensitivity and taste. His writing took full advantage of O’Connor’s richly endowed lower range, which never tips over into stridency as with some mezzos. She found a lovely range of expressiveness in these sonnets, which can be seen as pondering the meaning of music in a world where we were set adrift by isolation.
The rest of the program made for lovely listening, from Debussy’s exotic, deftly erotic “Chansons de Bilitis” to Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben,” which grafts a male perspective on the love arc of a young woman. Early songs by George Crumb and Elliott Carter, before either composer veered into unrelenting dissonance in their later works, were particularly charming.
Best of all was the encore, “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen,” from Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, played and sung with lofty serenity.
Singing was also part of Thursday afternoon’s Percussion Ensemble recital, a must-hear for some of us. For the featured work, the ensemble’s longtime director, Jonathan Haas, chose “Cantata para América mágica” by the 20th-century Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, enlisting three treble singers from the voice program to share the singing role. Although they occasionally needed to compete with a battery of 15 percussionists, they found sublime moments when the percussion took on a softer texture. This was especially so in the “Nocturne and Love Song,” sung by countertenor Chuanyuan Liu, and the emotionally-rewarding finale, “Song of Prophesy,” sung by soprano Anna Thompson.
Beside the charming works by Cage and Takemitsu, most arresting was “Reflections on the Nature of Water.” The suite for marimba by Jacob Druckman explored the delicate sounds of water. Four percussionists took turns on the six short movements.
Tuesday’s concert in Harris Hall, billed as “An American Evening,” was built around a performance of Copland’s ballet “Appalachian Spring,” in the original 13-piece ensemble version. A one-two punch of more recent works outshone it, and they couldn’t have been more different.
Christopher Theofanidis, who currently leads the festival’s composition program, employed more welcoming textures and harmonies in his 8-minute scene-painting “If falling is a leaf.” Inspired by a David Hockney painting and a companion Melissa Studdard poem, the composer aptly portrayed the swirling winds and dazzling leaf colors of fall with concision, beauty, and lively music. Maurice Cohn, who did such a great job last week with John Williams’ film music, conducted a vital performance.
Augusta Read Thomas’ piece, “The Auditions,” was written as a dance piece that debuted in early 2020. Its strong, rhythmic component livened up the composer’s signature dense textures and tendency toward pungent dissonances. The contrast between slow, dreamy segments and faster, wilder sections of the 27-minute piece made for compelling listening.
The concert opened with Ives’ classic moment in time, “The Unanswered Question,” in an effective soft-hued performance, totally offstage. “Appalachian Spring,” written for the dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, stumbled from the top when conductor Jacob Bass started with a tempo so rushed that Copland’s sense of music coming out of the ether was completely missing. Graham might have broken a leg if she tried to dance to this pace. Things didn’t calm down until well past the mid-point, and by then it was too late.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
An A-list of contemporary composers contributed their own takes on “America the Beautiful” in pianist Min Kwon’s fascinating project, to be heard tonight in Harris Hall. Gil Shaham takes on Korngold’s lavish violin concerto in Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program in the tent. And Monday night in Harris Hall, pianist Michelle Cann explores the expressive music of Chicago’s Black renaissance