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Audra McDonald

Natural Talent, Consummate Skill

By Fred Choi

Staff Writer

Ted Sperling, Music Director

Lee Musiker, Piano

Symphony Hall

Feb. 3, 2002

The depth and variety of young Audra McDonald’s achievements grow with each new project she undertakes. In less than a decade, following her graduation from The Juilliard School in 1993, McDonald has become the first three-time Tony Award winner under the age of 30 for supporting roles in Carousel (1994), Master Class (1996), and Ragtime (1998). She originated the title role of the challenging musical tragedy Marie Christine, a retelling of the myth of Medea written for her by up-and-coming composer Michael John LaChiusa; performed with major orchestras in major venues such as Carnegie Hall and at events such as the London Proms and the Ravinia Music Festival in Chicago; and was recently nominated for an Emmy for her supporting role in Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Margaret Edison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit.

Her latest effort finds her expanding her list of achievements yet again. McDonald is touring the nation to support her upcoming album, a celebration of generally optimistic music dedicated to her new daughter.

As evidenced by the impressive list of her achievements, McDonald clearly has staying power. Her performance at Symphony Hall exemplified the work that has left critics and audiences alike eagerly anticipating her next move. The program showcased her technically virtuosic, thoughtful, and stirring interpretations. The 19 songs she performed with a 14-piece big band were a survey of music from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, garnished with a few contemporary songs. McDonald herself demonstrated her strong artistic integrity, her conscious dedication to exploring new territory, and, via her light-hearted stage banter, her easygoing, approachable personality.

McDonald’s concert was a near-perfect combination of familiarity and freshness. The songs fell into three categories: songs which McDonald has performed previously, songs which were mostly obscure, and “standards,” with which most in the audience were familiar. To say that McDonald has a tremendous, innate talent for “selling a song” would be an understatement. It is telling that listeners embraced the unfamiliar songs as strongly as the familiar.

McDonald’s performance of comedic numbers was astonishingly natural, as in Koehler and Arlen’s “Tess’ Torch Song” in which McDonald related the tale of her “man” who she thought was a “‘good’ man” and her “friend” who she thought was a “‘good’ friend,” and in Leonhart’s soul-tinged “Beat My Dog,” in which a long-suffering woman catalogues her problems with her lover: “Now I ain’t one to put down fun, but this time you gone too far/You smoke my hash, you steal my cash, who the hell do you think you are?”

No less effective was her treatment of dramatic numbers such as Irving Berlin’s “Suppertime,” in which a woman wonders how she’ll be able to tell her children that their father has left; and Rodgers and Hart’s poignant “Little Girl Blue:” “Sit there, and count your little fingers/Unlucky, little girl blue.” She tackled fun and light-hearted numbers with the same level of concentration. Shand and Eaton’s “I Double Dare You” was endearing but not cloying, and the Brazilian folksong “Babalele” sparkled, perfectly conveying the breeziness of the song despite the language barrier.

In addition, her reading of the Gershwin favorite “Someone to Watch Over Me” was noteworthy because it shunned the usual melodrama of lines such as “Tell me where’s the shepherd for this lost lamb,” for a shy and innocently hopeful infatuation which was completely intelligible and convincing. McDonald’s performance exceeded all expectations, even such that there were noticeable, although minute, improvements on numbers she has performed previously, such as Jerome Kern’s “Bill” and “Beat my Dog.”

McDonald clearly has the vocal talent to support her magnetic stage presence. Gifted with a gorgeous voice, McDonald has a beautiful, controlled tone quality from her much-touted classical background, like Dawn Upshaw’s clear soprano but with a much darker, more mature and malleable tone. She juxtaposes this sound with an earthier, more soulful side which she uses to great effect in sassy and bluesy numbers, in the manner of such greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Unlike other operatic singers who have made forays into musical theater repertoire, McDonald’s voice is versatile and she judiciously applies the wide-range of colorings of her voice to the songs she performs. At times this combination is a bit startling, as in LaChiusa’s “See What I Wanna See,” which featured McDonald taking on the voices of a girl and a man as they argue. Additionally, McDonald’s bluesier voice tends to be accompanied by vocal idiosyncrasies which take some getting used to, but in general they do not detract from McDonald’s rare combination of artistry and intelligence, natural talent and consummate skill.

After two best-selling albums -- one of challenging music by the “new” generation of musical theater composers and the second more centered on standards and ballads -- fans and critics eagerly await McDonald’s third release. From her concert’s program it appears that in addition to being an entertainer, McDonald may become the artist we count on to challenge herself and her audience by covering a broad spectrum of musical theater works and “discovering” little-known gems, perhaps not to the extent of the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, but to a level which certainly goes beyond mere lip service. Audra McDonald’s talent truly earned her the standing ovation she received after her performance at Symphony Hall.