From tenderly intimate to operatically passionate, Audra McDonald was always convincing and compelling. The Celebrity Series of Boston’s 2011-12 season began most impressively with a richly satisfying concert by McDonald at Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 2. She has begun a 20-city concert tour between the just-finished premier run of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater and its reopening on Broadway in December. After a brief introductory speech by Gary Dunning, the president and executive director of the Celebrity Series, there was a lengthy pause—perhaps to heighten expectation—before the instrumental trio came on stage: pianist/music director Andy Einhorn, bassist Mark Vanderpoel, and drummer Gene Lewin. When McDonald herself emerged, the applause was thunderous. After gracefully acknowledging the ongoing acclaim, she endeared herself to the audience by dismissively waving both hands at us, as if to say, “Oh, stop already!”
The opening song, “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello! by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, was an excellent showcase for McDonald, vocally and dramatically. Starting sweetly and simply before building up power and drama, it demonstrated how smoothly and effortlessly she knits together her plush chest register and brilliant head voice. Moreover, she gave the song—and all the excerpted songs, in fact—an emotional arc, granting them more weight than selections taken out of context would normally have.
McDonald also demonstrated a world-class gift for banter, which further endeared her to her listeners. When she didn’t find a stool onstage that she had expected to make occasional use of, she “killed time” very effectively while it was hunted for backstage. It made for an unplanned but quite natural lead-in to her next song, Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon,” which is very conversational and spontaneous in style. Yet there is a subtle emotional shift that takes place over the course of the song, conveyed with consummate skill by McDonald. “It Might as Well Be Spring” (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s State Fair) and “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” (Burton Lane & Alan Jay Lerner’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) were sung without pause and made a convincing pair in McDonald’s sweet, fresh-voiced rendering.
“My Buddy,” by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, had a couple of charming stories associated with it, e.g., McDonald learned it at age 10 for the local dinner theater in Fresno, CA. The ballad from 1922 (“the oldest song I sing”), in Andy Einhorn’s lovely arrangement, opened tenderly, grew into a very substantial middle verse, then tapered off to a simple, sweet ending. “I Double Dare You” (Terry Shand & Jim Eaton) had a particularly outstanding arrangement. It began with a mere hint of mischief, but soon enough the tempo jumped ahead as the piano launched into a wonderful, slightly crazed Tin Pan Alley-style “descant.” This likely would have stolen the thunder from most singers—but not Audra McDonald. The fun she had singing it was infectious.
The number that followed, not originally planned, was done at the request of a friend in the audience. “Bill” (Kern & Hammerstein’s Showboat) is both personal tribute (McDonald once sang it at an event honoring Bill Cosby) and a meditation on the mysteries of personal attraction, with a touch of humor. In fact, the song was briefly interrupted with laughter when, after singing about a “god-like kind of men,” McDonald gestured towards the famous Symphony Hall statuary of mythological figures.
The ambience of Irving Berlin’s “Moonshine Lullaby” (Annie Get Your Gun, a laid-back, jazzy number from Prohibition days, was enhanced by background vocals from her trio, a pleasant surprise. McDonald’s combination of exceptional intelligence and outstanding vocal technique makes Stephen Sondheim’s music a natural choice for her. Her account of “Moments in the Woods” (Into the Woods) was both fun and food for thought in the typical Sondheim manner, though it was mildly disappointing to miss some of the text due to sometimes overly casual enunciation.
Having just sung Bess for about a month, McDonald was eager to program something else by George and Ira Gershwin; “He Loves and She Loves” (Funny Face) is a song she has sung often in recent years for the cause of marriage equality. She brought to it a quiet fervor and tenderness slightly tinged with melancholy, and her trio contributed a lovely interlude. I daresay there were lumps in many throats at the end of this deeply felt song.
For Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V” McDonald accompanied herself at the piano. In this beautiful song musing on the wonders of flight, she proved herself a more than capable pianist. Both her singing and playing were velveteen. With trio back in place, McDonald’s rendition of another Bock & Harnick number, “Dear Friend” from She Loves Me, was notable for its mixture of humor and pathos, though again some text was missed thanks to some swallowed consonants.
Surely the best-known song on the program, sung with fitting breathless exhilaration, was “I Could Have Danced All Night” from Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady. McDonald got a laugh from the audience by initially saying, “If you feel inspired to sing along . . . don’t.” But in the event, she couldn’t resist coaxing some audience participation on the familiar refrain, even urging us to the high note at the end.
After speaking with deep affection of her daughter, McDonald performed two lullabies: “Whose Little Angry Man Are You?” from Raisin (Judd Woldin & Robert Brittan’s musical version of A Raisin in the Sun) and “Baby Mine” from Dumbo by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Each was infused with maternal warmth and (it virtually goes without saying) flawless vocalism. The Scottsboro Boys was “mistreated by Broadway” last season: treating the subject of racial injustice, Kander & Ebb daringly created a mock-minstrel show which predictably was protested by activists oblivious to the concept of irony, and its run was consequently foreshortened. In “Go Back Home” a black man, falsely imprisoned for the rape of a white woman, aches for the day he will receive the delayed justice of release. McDonald gave a powerful performance, full of hope and yearning.
Lightening the mood, there followed a genuine patter song, “Can’t Stop Talking ” by Frank Loesser, which began quite fast and only got faster. In conveying ecstasy, McDonald’s virtuoso diction was hair-raising. Here consonants were crisp, and even at the wildest tempo every word was intelligible.
Adam Gwon’s “I’ll Be Here” (Ordinary Days) gave a brief history of a young New York couple: their meeting, courtship, and marriage — cut short when the husband becomes one of the victims of 9/11. Gwon’s lovely, direct setting, coupled with McDonald’s sincere delivery, enabled the song to avoid potential melodrama. Also, the composer/lyricist approaches the disaster obliquely: the husband, knowing he is going to die, leaves a final loving phone message for his wife, giving her his blessing to move on and remarry. One imagines it would be easy enough to create something exploitative or maudlin based on the tragedy of 9/11, but this song decidedly avoids that and gives us something deeply moving. Adam Gwon is a name to watch for.
The final two planned pieces, though not directly connected with the Gwon, seemed to be logical continuations of its thematic essence. “Make Someone Happy” (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green’s Do Re Mi) showed the great range for which McDonald is famous.
From tenderly intimate to operatically passionate, she was always convincing and compelling. “Ain’t It de Truth” (a Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song cut from the film Cabin in the Sky) was a toe-tapping gospel tune, starting lively, then getting still quicker and modulating upwards. McDonald and her band had Symphony Hall rocking and singing along. They were rewarded with an immediate standing ovation which led to a single encore, a setting by Steve Marzullo of a famous text by James Baldwin: “Some Days”. This is another song the singer favors at rallies for marriage equality due to its core message: “Love is the only answer.” It also had a gospel feel, beginning modestly and working up to a powerful climax.
Audra McDonald has set the bar high for the rest of the Celebrity Series. I’m sure many would join me in hoping that her appearance in Boston will be a cherished annual (at least) event.