San Francisco Symphony advertises: “Whether it’s an off-the-wall escapade or a desert island classic, it’s all here in the … 2023-24 season.” California Festival, Signature Salonen, New Conceptions, Inspirations, Choice Classics, Epic Expressions – the SF Symphony offers a cornucopia of musical exposure to satisfy every preference.
Chief among these categories is “Bucket-List Brilliance: Singular concerts with sublime artists.” Front and center is the appearance of soprano Audra McDonald singing the Great American Songbook.
We arrived early because sight-seeing before the performance is so much fun. That evening we spotted a former colleague from the USF Upward Bound project and a writing instructor from SF State. Happy attendees wore everything from Levi Strauss denim to full-length mink coats. And at least three generations of music lovers were represented.
Audra McDonald is renowned for her artistry as a singer and an actor. She is a Juilliard-trained soprano with opera credits. Despite having four children, she has built a superlative career as a concert artist. Michael Tilson Thomas introduced her to the SF Symphony in 1998. The full house and roaring ovations this past week are testament to her popularity in San Francisco.
McDonald walked onstage in a stunning tangerine gown, off the shoulder. Traveling and performing with her are her three-piece band (Mark Vanderpoel, Gene Lewin, Jeremy Jordan) and her conductor Andy Einhorn. “I Am What I Am,”” lyrics by Jerry Herman, was followed by “Cornet Man” from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. A Duke Ellington tune, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” was next, followed by an exquisite rendering of “Summertime,” the famous aria from George Gershwin.
From My Fair Lady musical, we heard “I Could Have Danced All Night” by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. Her soprano, both lush and soaring, encouraged audience participation. McDonald exulted in the fact that in SF she knew she would not have to sing alone! A segue into time spent gardening during Covid led to a sweet and funny song, “I Always Say Hello to A Flower.” And she completed her first set with “Hard to Believe.”
McDonald’s musical message was clear, and welcoming during these troubled times.
After intermission, McDonald returned to the stage in a blue gown and treated the audience to songs by Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim. She spoke of her children and husband, of life in the theater world, and offered two lullabies she sang for her kids when they were little: “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from Richard Rodgers.
McDonald’s musical message was clear, and welcoming during these troubled times. She offered “There’s A Place for Us” from West Side Story. And she finished with a delightful story about “Come to the Cabaret,” a song covered by others so often that she had refused to sing it. However, when the command to sing came from Anna Wintour herself at a Metropolitan Museum event, McDonald finally gave in, dug deep and came up with her own perfect interpretation of the song – first for Anna Wintour and then for us in San Francisco! Another delightful evening with the SF Symphony.