A season opener for any classical group is always a tricky affair. You want it to be a fun event that will dazzle the subscribers and first-timers and keep them excited for the rest of the season. This weekend’s season-opening concerts of the Minnesota Orchestra were a lovely, if slightly disjointed celebration of the celebrated local orchestra.
After a very successful last year (which included a critically lauded cultural exchange tour of Cuba), music director Osmo Vänskä took the podium in great spirits and led the orchestra in an energetic performance. The spirit of 9/11 hung over the proceedings, opening with conductor laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the surprising combination of Aaron Copland’s Letters From Home and Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings played back to back with no pause. This, as it was announced in conversation with Maestro Vänskä and one of the members of the orchestra before the performance of the both pieces, was the result of a new initiative where the orchestra players were helping in selecting repertoire. That might explain the slightly disjointed nature of the repertoire which ranged from the overtures to Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld sitting side by side with a march by Hindemith and selections from Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome suite. This disjointedness in the repertoire led to some tonal whiplash among the audience and some odd balance moments among the orchestra; particularly in the Barber Adagio where the middle strings seemed to be drowned out. For me the highlights of the evening were the Copland piece which Vänskä managed to evoke the nostalgia that Copland was going for, and (surprisingly) the Offenbach overture, where they managed to find all the musical humor in the piece and showed that they can handle the sprightly nature of the music. (On a side note, since they wanted to hear our suggestions for repertoire, I would love to see them tackle a full concert production of either of Offenbach’s major operas Orpheus or The Tales of Hoffman).
The tonal disjointedness of the orchestra’s pieces was thrown into bigger relief because of the appearance of the evening’s guest star; recent Emmy-winning actress Audra McDonald. Looking drop dead gorgeous in a midnight blue lace gown, Ms. McDonald gave a master class in musical theatre acting and showed us how and why she deserved each of her six Tony awards (not only the most Tonys any actor has ever won period, but she is the only woman to have won an award in each of the acting categories). The evening started with two of her signature songs. First was the soaring ballad “When Did I Fall in Love?” from the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Fiorello!, which not only showed of all the best parts of her plummy soprano, but single-handedly made a case for remounting the Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick show. She then followed it up with “I Had Myself a True Love” from St. Louis Woman. It’s no secret that Ms. McDonald is one of the best interpreters of Harold Arlen’s music, and her operatic phrasing combined with Maestro Vänska and the orchestra milking the pathos out of Arlen’s swooning jazz made the song an emotional triumph, in spite of the fact that Vänska seemed to rush the end (in another instance of his slight awkwardness in conducting for singers). She then followed those two songs with some hilarious patter that led into a sing-along of Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night.” After claiming reticence about singing the song since every soprano had done it to death, she then finished with the audience singing along, and then topping the crowd with a thunderous high C. While it was a strong finish it was a slightly odd choice. The miracle of Ms. McDonald’s agile soprano is that it has the velvety heft of a mezzo-soprano color-wise and it made that song, and her second half opener “Moon River” sound slightly off having such a full-bodied voice in such lighter repertoire.
In addition to “Moon River,” Ms. McDonald had the crowd in stitches in her lightning-fast rendition of the Frank Loesser patter song “I Can’t Stop Talking About Him.” She then closed her set with two ballads. The first, “Make Someone Happy” from the Jule Styne and Comden and Green musical Do Re Mi, was a song that comforted her during the 9/11 attacks. Her personal connection to the material shone through in her generous performance. As her finale, she re-created her show-stopping performance as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music with “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” After telling an amusing story about texting with her daughter during the live broadcast, she literally left Orchestra Hall ringing with her mighty voice, which drove the audience to riot. As fabulous as she was (and she was!), the only major complaint I had was the shocking lack of work from newer musical composers; in particular Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel, who she has not only championed but performed their repertoire. But that was a minor complaint when you’re in the presence of a musical theatre master showering the audience in an embarrassment of theatrical and musical riches.
Photos: Courtney Perry for Minnesota Orchestra