Condoleezza Rice, Aretha Franklin: A Philadelphia show of a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, paired up with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for an evening of classics and R-E-S-P-E-C-T with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, has played Brahms before the Queen of England. On Tuesday night, she played Mozart before the Queen of Soul. She may have made a bigger impression on the former than she did on the latter.

The occasion was a gala benefit, raising $582,000 for arts education and the Mann Center, the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is celebrating its 75th birthday with the air of creaky festivity one associates with vacation homes of an earlier era: uninsulated wooden walls, cocktails on the faded porch.

Putting Aretha Franklin and Rice together on the stage had a kind of goofy brilliance. It was evidently Franklin who decided that the two should perform together; she may have sensed, with the same stage-animal instinct she demonstrated throughout the evening, that Rice would provide curiosity value to augment, or even showcase, Franklin's entertainment value.

In practice, Rice and the "fabulous Philadelphians," another name for the ensemble Franklin later referred to incorrectly as "the Philadelphia Symphony," were essentially an opening act. Rice, in her political career, has racked up some notable performances: an appearance with Yo-Yo Ma and the aforementioned gig for the queen, with members of the London Philharmonic, in 2008. But although she was a serious piano student in her youth, she hadn't played with an orchestra since she was 18 years old.

She acquitted herself honorably in a single movement -- the slow one -- of Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466. Her playing may have been a little foursquare, a little obedient, but that really wasn't the point. Taking the personal risk of going out onstage, playing respectably in public as a political figure, Rice sends a message about the sustaining power of a love of music that should be tremendously inspiring to people of any political stripe.

Rice's presence, and the orchestra's, also served to highlight Franklin's own classical leanings, which she served up generously, along with generous helpings of everything else, in her own 1 3/4 -hour, 16-song, post-intermission set. Franklin has been working on classical arias for about 10 years with Mary Callaghan Lynch, a soprano in Detroit who first coached Franklin when Pavarotti invited her to sing "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot," little knowing she would end up substituting for him at the last minute at the Grammys. Since then, Lynch said, Franklin has developed a repertory of about 10 arias, a couple of which she performed on Tuesday, including, for the first time ever in public, "Che faro" from Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice."

It's fascinating to hear what happens when an artist like Franklin, whose music is all about making a song her own, encounters the more fixed conventions of the classical tradition. In "Che faro," the result was a bit of a train wreck as Franklin struggled to free herself from the regular beat of the orchestra. But she produced a cover of "Ombra mai fรน" from Handel's "Xerxes," to her own piano accompaniment, that came from the heart.

For the audience of about 8,000, though, the "classics" of the evening were Franklin's own, from "Respect" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" through a foray into what Franklin calls "chu'ch" and extending even to a touching duet of "The Way We Were" with Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers, including asides about their shared musical past in the 1960s.

Franklin gives a heck of a show. It took her a few songs to get warmed up Tuesday, but once the power had been massaged back into the voice and the patchiness had been largely thrown off, she seemed determined to stick around and enjoy it. "Just a few bars!" she enjoined, before sitting down at the piano -- having already stripped off her opera gloves, finger by finger -- and launching into a rendition of "Dr. Feelgood" that lasted a lot longer than a few bars.

There was a single duet with Rice, who emerged from the wings like a vision from a far more formal world, sat down at the piano and began "I Say a Little Prayer."

"You didn't think she could play it, right?" Franklin teased the audience.

But despite Franklin having supposedly initiated this project, the onstage interaction between the two women seemed distant; and this music certainly isn't Rice's home turf. In a nod to Rice's political roots, Franklin brought her back out to close with a song that she called "our national anthem" and turned out to be "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" -- a mixed political message right in keeping with the general goofiness of the evening.

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