Condoleezza and Aretha Play the Mann

Condoleezza Rice performed at the Mann on Tuesday evening. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)

It began like almost any other orchestra summer idyll, with Leonard Bernstein's Candide Overture.
And then, with the middle movement of a Mozart piano concerto, Tuesday night's Philadelphia Orchestra concert at the Mann Center suddenly took on rare auras of celebrity, politics and the general idea that history of a sort was in the making.
The source of the extra-musical messaging was the soloist: Condoleezza Rice, former national security advisor, 66th U.S. Secretary of State and public face of the Bush 43 administration. She took on the ten-minute “Romance” of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, like the competent amateur she is.
Rice got a nice, mostly polite reception, but after intermission, the star power intensified exponentially with the arrival of Aretha Franklin. Listeners roared, and she gave them what they came for – “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think,” and more. “What a wonderful audience,” she said.
A gala fund-raiser for the Mann’s educational programs and clearly the Fairmount Park venue’s main event of the summer, the concert has no obvious parallels. It was a first, and so far only, co-mingling for this pop music legend, former member of a presidential cabinet and major symphony orchestra. Under-cover seating was sold out, and the lawn was thickly settled. Total attendance was near 10,000, a Mann official estimated.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has plenty of precedent ceding the guest-artist spotlight to personalities more famous for doing something else: Harpo Marx, Danny Kaye and more recently Alec Baldwin. Amateur Bavarian pianist Joseph Alois Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, is a friend of former Philadelphia Orchestra music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, though the relationship has yet to yield a performance of Mozart (a favorite composer) with the Philadelphians.
Even Ignacy Jan Paderewski isn't an exact historical relation to Rice. He was a professional pianist with a first-rank career first, one of the greats, and then went on to become a diplomat, prime minister of Poland and his country’s signatory to the Treaty of Versailles.
Rice, of course, is experienced as a diplomat first, pianist second. She has managed to parlay her profile and connections into relationships with musicians and ensembles that would have been otherwise unavailable to her. She partnered with Yo-Yo Ma and the Muir String Quartet – big names – but the performance Tuesday night marked her entry into the big-time orchestra league. Her only other moment on stage with an orchestra, she said, was a performance of this same concerto with the Denver Symphony, as a teenager.
But it was the Queen of Soul’s show, and she spent so much time sating the audience with Classic Aretha, plus spells at the keyboard, you had to wonder whether she had Rice tied up backstage. Rice did return for a collaboration – briefly, at the very end, in “I Say A Little Prayer,” and then, in an encore, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
Franklin alone intoned a piece a Mann publicist confirmed as "Che faro senza Euridice" from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
Rice was a pretty player in spots of the Mozart, making conductor Rossen Milanov smile when she took time with the upbeats to a phrase. In the serene opening few minutes, her playing was studied and slightly stiff. She wasn’t able to voice effectively in the stormier middle section so that the more important material could be heard. On the whole it wasn’t an artistic statement as much as an exercise in survival, and heard from that point of view, she achieved what she set out to do.
The audience, which greeted her initial appearance on stage with a partial standing ovation and a boo or two, granted her only polite applause afterwards.
Some in attendance viewed her presence as a dangerous omen — for the music industry.
“I hope this doesn’t start an alarming trend of Bush administration officials going on tour,” said Manan Trivedi, Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Sixth District. “We don’t want Cheney on third tenor.”
Trivedi, an Iraq War veteran, was one of many attendees inclined to quarrel with Rice’s record in Washington. But the smattering of boos aside, most said the evening had little to do with politics.
“Look how many cars are in the lot,” said Tracy Weatherly, 43, of North Philadelphia, noting the concert’s charitable ties. “They’re here for the music.”
Any meaning, then, to the orange Barack Obama T-shirt Weatherly donned Tuesday night?
“Matched the sneakers,” he said.
Inquirer staff writer Matthew Flegenheimer contributed to this story.