Review: Season Opener, Audra McDonald, Minnesota Orchestra

This past weekend at the Minnesota Orchestra was a gala of flashy moments: sparkling drop necklaces, dazzling tunes, dashing (impossibly talented) men in tuxes, elegant (impossibly talented) women in gowns, champagne bubbling over, sequins and beads and feathers. Big and little moments of excitement and anticipation and joy, coming one after another after another, our first opening night in a new era of peace, stability, and prosperity.


My seat is in right balcony B, a perfect perch from which to observe the crowd and the band and the night. The music begins with the Star Spangled Banner arranged by St. Stan himself. Soprano voices soar high. String players’ chins tilt over their instruments as they survey the crowd, their parts memorized. A roar of applause, an unspoken “play ball!” echoing in the inner ear.


Magic Flute overture. Chords: round and bold. Strings: one voice magnified, then another, as the Mozartean lines skitter to and fro, some higher, then lower, call and response flitting instantaneously across the stage. My hand as I lean over the short wall, watching the back stands of violas and the basses, then leaning back again and straightening out my dress. Dry air. The rustle of a crisp new program book beside me, its cover folded back. Powerful women glittering under the spotlight in their gowns. Delight. Awe.



Osmo taking up a microphone after the overture. His observation: “We are planning a little bit differently than we have been.” My realizing this is the only reference that there will be to the Before Times. We’ve – finally – all moved on.

Principal cello Tony Ross stepping forward to the mic, deep warm voice sounding like his instrument, explaining the reasoning behind their programming the next two pieces. Both written by American composers, both in the same key, both helpful for reflecting on this, the fourteenth anniversary of the September eleventh attacks.

Informal, formal. The best of both.


Copland Letter from Home. Wistful clarinet and brass. Honesty, warmth, heart. Akin to lying in a prairie field in a September dusk, watching color stretching through clouds.

Distant-sounding trumpet.

Then Barber Adagio, creeping in from silence. Crawling scales. Strings like breath. Yearning steps hushed. Pianissimo whispers. A brisker tempo, always pressing forward, always striving forward, propelling the melancholy to eventually blossom into full-blown despair. More crawling scales. Up. Faster, slightly – dissonances – shrieking, bringing a nausea to the skin.

Then a hush. Breaths caught. Suspension of time.

Slow applause.

A sense of disorientation, maybe, to move from such gut-twisting to show tunes, but by the time the doors open, the feeling in the hall has shifted and recovered.


Audra McDonald: understated goddess of song, shy smile on her face as she sweeps onto the stage, beaming at the audience, glancing up at Osmo that she is ready to begin.

When did respect first become affection? 

My inner musical self noting what Audra has to teach me tonight: how to act, how to tell a story, through musicianship. It’s about phrase, inflection, observing and imparting character. Singers don’t hold the monopoly on those ideas.

I had myself a true love, a true love who was something to see… There may be a lot of things to learn but I do know this:

Glancing back at the full, rapt hall.

A brief charming spoken interlude before I Could Have Danced All Night.

Suddenly, in the middle of the song: “You all know it, don’t you? Let’s all sing it together.”

Corny as hell. And so much f’ing fun, to sing in a two thousand voice choir in an acoustically perfect space.

“You just sang with Audra McDonald,” I told my soprano best friend, giddy, as the audience roared. We screamed a little and high-fived.


Then, without pausing for any breath, the froth and cream of Offenbach’s giddy Paris, with musicians still scrambling onstage. Greg Williams taking a deep breath and solidifying his position as one of my favorite Minnesota Orchestra musicians with his sparkling clarinet solo. An aura of expectation as flutes and harps ascend and question.

A sudden turn – roiling strings, panicked piccolo. Erin Keefe’s fingers spinning silver filigrees into the air, trilling, arpeggiating. Solo violin as defiant diva. The string sections echoing her fabulously snarky sassy tone.

That Big Tune.

A glimpse of quick motion out of the corner of my eye: my gaze is pulled away from the woodwinds and toward center stage. It’s the cello section: during rests, they’re all twirling their cellos around with abandon, like a group of frenetic Fred Astaires, their cellos Ginger Rogers. Giggles at the sheer stupidity and riskiness and awesomeness of this.

Viola off-beats.

Then, the tune coming back, heartbeat accelerating, final crashes and bashes of triumph. Smiles, cheers, laughing.


Laughing, joking in the hallways. Posing for pictures with friends, then crowding round the screen to see how they turned out, then laughing at how they turned out, then deleting them. Adjusting hair, makeup, wraps, shoes. Checking phones. Singing. Descending the staircases with the glass railings, Minneapolis twinkling through the glass walls, watching the hundreds of patrons round us. Dry air. Wine and drinks. Chatter. Optimism and smiles. Confidence.

A photo booth in the lobby. Take a picture with a cutout of Beethoven, get a Polaroid print of it and a free Minnesota Orchestra Beethoven CD. The screen behind you advertises the January Beethoven Festival that will take place in 2016. My best friend and I pose as dorkily as humanly possible. “Audra McDonald, singing with Audra McDonald, getting paid with CDs to model… This is the best concert ever,” she says.




After intermission, Respighi: moments from the Fountains of Rome.

Twirls of sound. Sound that eddies like rivulets: pushes and pulls. Sounds that twist like they’re being watched through a kaleidoscope. Orchestral color and pattern, sometimes muted, sometimes bold, sometimes even terrifying. Always lush and cinematic. Brass both pounding and soaring. String players’ fingers crawling like elegant spiders up and down their instruments, their dozens of hands looking like the surface to a secret synchronized sea.


Violist Sam Bergman in his quick speech announcing the post-concert champagne toast, being taken off-guard because the audience goes wild when he mentions that old friends are back onstage again this year. “Yes,” he says. “Absolutely.”

And then: “Thank you so much for being here.”

God, where else is there to be??


Audra McDonald floating on the stage again. A  yearning “Moon River.” Erin Keefe taking a little line in the concertmaster solo and making it a breathtaking little musical statement.

There’s such a lot of world – to see.

Murmurs of appreciation. An audience eating it up.

Then: “Can’t Stop Talking About Him.”

Or more accurately, Ican’tstoppingtalkingabouthimandtalkingabouthimandtalkingabouthim.


my reaction to this number in gif format

The breath control, the enunciation, the sheer power of the velocity…most importantly, the character…all combined to smear goosebumps down the back.


Then a brief heartfelt spoken interlude from Audra. After moments of high tragedy – especially one like 9/11, the anniversary of which we were observing – what happens? In her words: “What matters?” This, she proclaimed, is the answer:

Make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy
And you will be happy too.

Schmaltzy, corny, simplistic, honest.



Another story told at the microphone: a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the NBC live broadcast of The Sound of Music, in which Audra played the Mother Abbess. Unexpected memories: I remember watching it with my late mother, both of us curled on the couch and giggling madly, attempting to out-snark the other. But then when Audra McDonald came on camera and sang, we both stopped and mumbled a bit and finally said, “I want to see her as Maria!” Up in the balcony, as Audra sings Climb Every Mountain, I have a moment of feeling close to Mom. Knowing she’d approve of this night and this magic.

Follow every rainbow – till you find your dream.

Audra wanted to leave us with “a benediction,” she’d said. We left her with a standing ovation.


Colorful Hindemith to close: the March from the Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Weber. Focused, determined, a bit ruthless. Barnstorming. Spectacular. Grandiose beyond belief.

An ovation that goes too long. Osmo taking Erin’s hand, and the two leading their colleagues off the stage.

Happy contented buzz. An exultant “well, what now?” feeling. Grins.


Friday night, standing uselessly and ornamentally, wearing a too-long dress, makeup and hair my best recreation of Art Deco fashion plate. A champagne toast. Standing on the main lobby staircase. Surrounded by friends. Musicians streaming out into the throng of people, their instruments tucked safely backstage. Hugs. Reaching out to friends too distant to hug. Waves. A perfect view of Kevin Smith, who elicits screams of affection from the crowd: he is an administrative rock star. A perfect view of Osmo, jacket changed now, eyes sharp. He looks around at the hundreds of us clustered round him. “It is meaningful to see all of you standing here on all of these levels,” he said, with his characteristic Vanskan penchant for double meanings.

Saturday I’m dressed much more sensibly; I’ve volunteered to pour champagne for the toast. (And as a thanks for doing so, I’ve received complimentary tickets for the first half of the show, which I gratefully watch again! Thank you, MOA! I can highly recommend volunteering; learn more about doing so here.)

At one point on Saturday night, as I’m bending over to pour, I notice the volunteer tag on my lapel. I catch myself smiling at how distant the past now seems. “Would you like some champagne?” I ask again and again, until finally my tongue ties and I start earnestly saying “would you like shome champagne?” and I realize it is probably time to sit down and take a break. Audra McDonald in Ican’tstoptalkingabouthim I am not.


being incredibly dorky with bloggy brother Scott Chamberlain from Mask of the Flower Prince

being dorky with bloggy brother Scott Chamberlain from Mask of the Flower Prince


A few musicians come up to me afterward with variations on the conversation-starter, “So, the program…” They all leave the phrase hanging in the air, looking at me expectantly, almost apologetically, waiting for a reaction. And yeah, I see where their concerns were coming from. Looking at it on paper, it doesn’t seem to hold together.

And it wasn’t necessarily cohesive, but – it didn’t need to be. Sometimes cohesion is overrated. It was cohesion enough for there to be excitement, energy, glamour. (There was.) Smatterings of bright moments. (There were.) Little diamonds of precious memories to keep and tuck away. (We have them. And we’ll keep them. Forever!)


Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

2 responses to “Review: Season Opener, Audra McDonald, Minnesota Orchestra

  1. Yes, indeed… “Sang with Audra McDonald” is going on the ol’ vocal resume. What a concert!

  2. Michael Moricz

    The original context for the “can’t stop talking about him” song. :)

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