Audra McDonald Sells Out Philadelphia Orchestra

Here is an early, unedited version of a review scheduled to run in the paper edition of The Inquirer tomorrow.

You can keep those waltzes and polkas. This New Year’s eve the Philadelphia Orchestra imported Audra McDonald.
In their annual glamour grab, a lot of American orchestras have appropriated Vienna on this night. Passing the last few hours of the year with Strauss and Straus has its old-country pleasures, though like a lot of folk music, doing it right is more tricky than it sounds. Without the artistic integrity to time an authentic distortion of the afterbeats, auslanders just can’t communicate what it is that makes a Vienna waltz defy gravity. It’s really a kind of swing, and it doesn’t belong to us.
What our indigenous ensembles do have, or should have, is an ear for American popular song, and the sound of McDonald Thursday31 night in Verizon Hall against all that Philadelphia Orchestra lush made your heart beat faster, especially in the Gershwin tunes.
The actress and singer (who spent a similar New Year’s eve with the New York Philharmonic three years ago) has a love of sonic purity, and her way of making a song her own comes not by way of liberal interpretation but through intensifying the composer’s intentions.
Her strengths even render powerless the risk of cliché: wisely, she approached Arlen/Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” not by starting at the chorus as most do, but with the rarely heard verse - all accompanied by only the sensitive amplified acoustic guitar of Kevin Kuhn. “Moon River” could have been the stuff of kitsch, but in a touched-by-dissonance orchestration by Lee Musiker, Mancini came off with a glistening, nocturnal edge.
That McDonald is a technician of the highest order was clear with the machine-gun-fast triplets of Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking About Him.”
The orchestra had plenty of material on its own – Gershwin’s An American in Paris, the “Three Dance Episodes” from Bernstein’s On the Town – and perhaps too much. Rossen Milanov was conducting, and the material often sounded under-rehearsed. I hope to never again hear the Philadelphia Orchestra as raggedy and out of its element as it did in the Robert Russell Bennett orchestration of the Overture to Gershwin’s Girl Crazy.
The concert, sold out, was a strange paradox. Twice McDonald had to re-start the orchestra after bad starts (one time was her fault, the other perhaps a shared mishap). The evening was littered with sloppy or false orchestra entrances and instrumental sections playing out of sync.
And yet McDonald’s ease and wit was the larger presence, and when the group could fall back on its traditional sound and soft, kitteny mews, the package was luxuriant. Gershwin’s “Ask Me Again” was as if written for this ensemble in an arrangement by Ted Sperling and orchestration of Bruce Coughlin.
Anyone who left after the printed program indicated McDonald was finished missed a ten-minute bonus: Arlen’s “Ain’t it de Truth” from Jamaica, and “May You Always,” the popular song by Larry Markes and Dick Charles that mingles with “Auld Lang Syne.”
Again, McDonald averted cliché. There was nothing boozy or sentimental in her view of the tune, which traditionally sends audiences into the cold New Year’s Eve air in an odd state of melancholy. Instead, McDonald’s purity and sweetness gifted her listeners with a sense of renewal, which is really the only sensible way to straddle a difficult year and the hope that lies just around the corner.
- Peter Dobrin