Audra McDonald


An Evening of Immersion in Mahler Songs
JoAnn Falletta Leads Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players with Guests Attacca Quartet
Soprano Susan Platts, Tenor Charles Reid and Baritone Roderick Williams
Robin Hixon Theater, May 5, 2015
Review by John Campbell

The Robin Hixon Theater is an intimate performing space—a large room that can be tuned and arranged for all sorts of performances. Gustav Mahler songs are written for large orchestras in big symphony halls. The intimate venue and chamber accompaniment made this performance unique.

From 1918 to 1921 Arnold Schoenberg headed the Society for Private Musical Performance that presented concerts of new and rarely heard works in Vienna. Schoenberg made arrangements for chamber orchestra of Songs of a Wayfarer and began one for Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). It was not completed until 1983 by Rainer Riehn from notes about how Schoenberg intended to reduce Mahler’s huge orchestral palette to chamber size.

Performance Today host Fred Child introduced the singers and gave us the background information. JoAnn Falletta conducted the 15 member orchestra with the Attacca Quartet front and center in the ensemble.

Tapping into the Romantic art song tradition, Mahler’s four song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), uses his own poems. Baritone Roderick Williams communicated with a naturalness as if a friend were telling a story. The Wayfarer sings of his grief on his sweetheart’s wedding day as he loses his beloved to another man. The mournful opening gives way to a more energetic music as he focuses on birds and flowers though for him spring is over as he wallows in his sorrow. Mr. Williams’ singing was gentle and beautiful.

The second song is a walk in nature and his happiness as he takes delight in the beauty around him, only to sink back into sad resignation. The quiet singing was absolutely lovely. The third song, titled “I have a red-hot knife in my breast” is a boisterous statement of pain – “O, woe is me!” But you don’t die of a broken heart and the singer communicated his angst completely. In the fourth song the image of his sweetheart’s beguiling blue eyes is the focal point. The image sends him into the wide world. The singer takes us on the journey as he finds solace by falling asleep under a tree where he is gently covered by falling blossoms. Only after the applause began was the spell broken for me and my tears began, so gentle was the voice that holds the healing of the sorrow in a world of dreams.

The song cycle lasted 15 minutes. Then came an intermission before the hour-long Das Lied von der Erde. Mr. Child discussed whether the work is a song-cycle or a symphony (Mahler called it a symphony). The length and intensity of the work offers a challenge of concentration for both performers and audience—we were all in it together. With the orchestra, Charles Reid sang The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow illustrating life’s darkness and brevity. It took a few minutes to adjust to the trimmed textures of the reduced score but once we did the interplay of instrumental lines was a revelation. At leisurely tempos and a more spare instrumental sound the tenor did not have to strain to be heard. Yet Mr. Reid was a loud drunk, asking us to delay drinking our toast until he has his full say of sorrow: “Dark is life, and so too death.” But wine at the right time can help. The robust, scolding message came across effectively.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts created the passage of time, kinetically, in The Lonely One in Autumn. Focused on nature, all of the texts are based on German translations of 8th and 9th-century Chinese poems. The weary feeling in the text was in Ms. Platts’ voice. Loneliness has come after the sun of love has set and the poetry ends with bitter tears. The tenor returns with a catchy, little tune Of Youth that marches on, giving us the image of a pavilion of green and white porcelain in the pond with an arched jade bridge across a pavilion where finely dressed friends drink tea, talk and write poems, all reflected in the quiet water. The tenor caressed the closing phrase and there was mystery in the music.

In Of Beauty Ms. Platts offered an image of young girls picking lotus flowers on the river bank on a bright, sunlit day, the breeze rich with the fragrance and the boys on horseback dashing heedless over the flowers and grass. The fairest of the girls cast a yearning glance toward the boldest of the boys. There is a glee for life in the voice. A lovely instrumental coda follows and I noticed the prominent playing of the Attacca Quartet. Mr. Reid sang The Drunkard in Spring with exuberance : “Why worry, drink until sleep comes, wake and sing of spring’s arrival until you sleep again.”

By the beginning of the sixth and final song, The Farewell, the slight remoteness I had felt earlier from the singer disappeared and I was enthralled. Ominous instrumental music opened this last song that is as long as the first five together. The unfolding is beautiful, sad and gentle. As darkness descends over the valley and forest, the earth breathes out rest and sleep and dreaming. Like the earth, our going is celebrated with a friend, dreamily drunk with eternal love and life. The feeling is of being exposed, raw. The mezzo sat down as a long, musical interlude began. The nostalgia in the woodwinds was answered by deep string tones. Standing once again, Ms. Platts delivered the final music with a haunting intimacy: “My heart awaits its final hour!” “Spring renews itself with flowers and blue skies…forever…forever.”

This was an evening to remember. It has been several years since Virginia Arts Festival has so honored the art of solo classical song.

Virginia Arts Festival: Cantus
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Portsmouth
May 20, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

As part of the Virginia Arts Festival May 20th, the marvelous nine-member male chorus called Cantus—which means song—explored the music of world cultures to answer the questions, “Why sing? Why sing together?” In the attractive acoustics of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, the answer appeared to be: “Because it’s fun!”

Indeed it was—and they were. They began with an arrangement of Robert Lowry’s How Can I Keep from Singing? with each vocal line distinct yet perfectly blended. A Japanese folk song had one or two tenors calling, with the chorus responding—and singing under the call. Dúlamán, arranged by Michael McGlynn and sung in Gaelic, was quick and light, with dynamic variations. Joseph Brackett’s well-loved Simple Gifts was creative without warping the essential beauty of the melody, ending on a perfectly tuned final note.

Sederunt, a Latin song whose text is from the liturgy for St. Stephen’s Day, was a very early example of polyphony that must have been quite startling when first heard. Leos Janácek’s Ave Maria was sung in Czech and Latin, interweaving Czech poetry with the repeated Ave Maria.

The members of Cantus look at each other; they move; they smile. Singing from memory, they’re not stiffly formal but have a clear, virile sound, with beautiful diction.

Baritone Matthew Goinz had the solo beginning of I Vow to Thee, My Country. The text is by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, a British diplomat, whose poem honoring the sacrifices made in World War I was set to Gustav Holst’s extraordinary hymn tune THAXTED, from the Jupiter section of The Planets. Cantus gave it poignant immediacy, especially in the elegant key modulation of Aaron Humble’s arrangement.

Khorumi was a complete change of pace—a war dance from the Adjani region of Georgia—the former Soviet Republic, not the American state. Goinz again soloed over a chorus of fast, crisp syllables with challenging and invigorating dynamics.

Different combinations of voices were heard in Songs of War and Protest, a medley arranged by Cantus bass Chris Foss, that honored the sacrifice of soldiers. Quoting songs from the Civil War (The Vacant Chair) to World War I (I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier) to the civil rights struggle (We Shall Overcome), the medley reprised We Shall Overcome at the end— fresh, and new, and peaceful, ending on a resonant low note.

The defiant traditional African-American chain gang song, Rainbow Round My Shoulder, was sung in rising keys, punctuated by vigorous stamping which left the ear full of vibrations.

Cantus commissioned contemporary composer Rosephanye Powell’s When We Sing, bringing out its rhythms with the percussion of djembe drum and shaker. Nkosi Sikelele l’Afrika (God Bless Africa), a hymn by Enoch Sotonga became the national anthem of five different African countries; it was sung in Xhosa, Zulu and Sesotho, with djembe, frame drum and shaker percussion.

Cantus had the audience singing Row, row, row your boat in a two-part round—well, yeah, they’re all about singing together, and they’re not afraid to let ’er rip!

Esti Dal, a traditional song about a wandering shepherd seeking peace, was arranged by Zoltan Kodaly, and sung in Hungarian—not the easiest language around. Stephen Leek’s arrangement of Australia’s Waltzing Matilda was very stylized, but scraps of the familiar original melody rang out strongly. The Irish folk song Danny Boy can get pretty schmaltzy, but not here; Cantus sang it with passion, but without milking the high notes.

They introduced the next song by talking about ritual and ceremony in our daily lives. Composer Nurit Hirsch took a text from the Jewish burial liturgy for the lovely Oseh Shalom.

The startling Balinese Monkey chant—“Tjak!”—involved crouching, chittering, swaying—very unusual and great fun. For Wedding Qawwali, an Indian wedding chant, guitar, djembe, and tambourine brought out the joyful Southeast Asian rhythms.

Next came a lively traditional Croatian Klapa—an a cappella festival song. (I’m not about to attempt the title.) Keep America Singing was a barbershop quartet—what could be more American? You’ll Never Walk Alone, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, was the finale. Their encore was America the Beautiful,with the audience cued in on the last refrain and responding with joy.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Virginia Arts Festival: Audra McDonald
Attucks Theater, Norfolk
May 15, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

There are not enough superlatives to describe Audra McDonald’s extraordinary Virginia Arts Festival concert at the historic Attucks Theatre May 15.

Wearing a deceptively simple long, black, formfitting dress and a dazzling smile, McDonald sang for nearly two hours without a break. With every song—a familiar standard or one not so familiar—she drew the audience into its dramatic story, and audience members felt that she was singing directly to each of them. It was a reminder that McDonald has won six Tony Awards—more than any other performer—and was the first to win in all four performance categories, in both singing and dramatic roles. She had an easy rapport with the audience, telling stories about her life and family, giving information about a particular song and how she came to include it.

First up was Sing Happy, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, from their first musical, Flora the Red Menace, for which Liza Minelli won the 1965 Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical. It was followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lovely It Might as Well Be Spring from State Fair, with the introduction no one ever gets to hear; then Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Stars and the Moon, from three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, is the story of a practical woman who rejects two poor suitors who’ve offered her “stars in the morning”; she marries for wealth and comfort, and then realizes what she’s lost.

You could have heard a pin drop.

An encounter with a street person who sang My Buddy to her prompted the Juilliard-trained soprano to include the song, with the bridge no one ever sings. McDonald said wonderingly, “He sang it in the same octave!”

Introducing her pianist and music director, Andy Einhorn, who’s been with McDonald since 2011, led into a little-known song, Let’s Not Talk About Love, with long strings of funny, clever rhymes by the legendary Cole Porter, from the 1941 musical Let’s Face It. What she called a “scary, difficult” song by Stephen Sondheim was The Glamorous Life, from A Little Night Music (1973). It’s sung by a daughter about the difference between “ordinary mothers” who lead ordinary lives, and her mother who lives the glamorous life. (The lyrics are Sondheim-clever, but the tune seemed to have been recycled in Sondheim’s Into the Woods.) McDonald related the song to her 14-year-old daughter, whose mother was on tour and on stage so frequently. Einhorn’s accompaniment was superb.

His playing for Summertime was as wonderful as McDonald’s singing of the classic first-act lullaby from the Gershwins’ 1935 Porgy and Bess—for which McDonald won a Tony in 2012.

McDonald paid tribute to the extraordinary Barbara Cook, the 87-year-old actress/singer who’s still performing after 60 years on Broadway! Calling her “the Queen of Soprano Isle,” McDonald sang one of Cook’s songs from the 1963 musical She Loves Me, music by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.

McDonald’s daughter as a child told her, “Mommy, your singing makes my ears cry!” McDonald said of Shaina Taub’s 2011 poignant bedtime story, The Tale of Bear and Otter, “This is the lullaby that I didn’t get to sing for my actual daughter.”

Another Kander & Ebb song, Maybe This Time, written in 1964 but included in Cabaret, was all power, passion and heartbreak—yet still hopeful.

McDonald commented on her Juilliard background, saying, “So I should sing lieder,” and launched into two songs from composer/performer Gabriel Kahane’s song cycle called Craigslistlieder. Einhorn joined in, singing falsetto echoes into the piano mic. It was hilarious, especially when McDonald ended with her hands folded in a prissy formal pose.

At her happy invitation, the audience sang along with gusto on I Could Have Danced All Night, from Lerner and Loew’s 1956 My Fair Lady—and were complimented on their willingness. It’s interesting that both Renee Fleming (in her February recital) and McDonald used this song for a singalong, and both sang Summertime exquisitely.

A song from Kander and Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys asked plaintively, “When I’m gonna go back home?” with subtle key changes. Fred Ebb, in his will, endowed a substantial scholarship for new, young musical theatre composers or lyricists. The first winner was Adam Gwon for his musical Ordinary Days. His I’ll Be Here is a bittersweet story of new love, lost love, grief and hope in the context of 9/11. McDonald’s performance was nothing short of riveting. I cannot listen to her singing that song without leaking tears— it’s that beautiful. Einhorn did full justice to the haunting, deceptively simple accompaniment.

Do Re Mi was a 1960 musical by Jule Styne, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. McDonald sang Make Someone Happy, which expresses her philosophy of music and life—“Fame, if you win it,/Comes and goes in a minute.”

She joked about playing the Mother Abbess in the recent live television production of The Sound of Music— “I’m from the sunny side of the Alps”—but her stirring, sincere rendition of Climb Every Mountain was anything but a joke.

She began Let It Go, from Frozen—then shook her head and made a face. Instead, she spoke of the late Judy Garland— “I just missed her” —and sang, as the encore, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

The audience was in no hurry to leave. They looked at one another and beamed. It was as if they were saying without words, “Yes, this was unforgettable, a once-in-a-lifetime experience—and we all saw it.”

Yes, we did. And yes, it was.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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