REVIEW: Audra McDonald & the University Symphony Orchestra

Two years ago, I first saw Audra McDonald do a concert in Hill Auditorium. It changed my life in a way that few other performances have.

Today was largely a reprise of that night, with a few changes. Two years ago, Audra sang alone for more than two and a half hours with only her accompanist, Andy Einhorn (who deserves his own standing ovation for his incisive skill, his endlessly fascinating arrangements, and his wondrous musical expression). Today, the single piano was just the warm-up act. Our very own University Symphony Orchestra joined her for Act II, and for me, that was the true glory of the afternoon’s entertainment.

Now don’t go thinking that I was disappointed by Audra and Mr. Einhorn; quite the contrary. I wrote a few days ago that Audra is one of the most sensational performers alive today, and I stand by that statement after today’s show. What interests me is that I was expecting Audra’s glory to carry the entire show. I expected the USO to be a bit of an afterthought, mere accompaniment to her incredible instrument. I did not expect to take my eyes off Audra at any point during the performance. Why did I? Why, at some moments, did I simply close my eyes and listen rather than watch? I’ll give you a hint: nearly all of those moments were in Act II.

The thing is, Audra is sensational. I knew that going in, and I got exactly what I was looking so forward to. But I got something else, too. Before Act II “really” started (the entr’acte, a Gershwin medley, in the words of Mark Gershwin, was “one hell of an overture”), Ken Fischer (UMS President), Christopher Kendall (SMTD Dean), Mary Sue Coleman, and Mark Gershwin, nephew of George and Ira (do you see where this is going yet?) collectively made a huge announcement:

The estate of George and Ira Gershwin are entering into a collaboration with the School of Music to produce the very first Critical Edition of the works of George and Ira Gershwin. What does this mean, exactly? If I understood correctly, it means that our very own School of Music will be given access to original manuscripts and all sorts of scholarly material in order to produce accurate and stylistically faithful recordings of the entire Gershwin canon of music. This kind of thing is essentially only done for the true masters of music, and largely it is done for classical composers like Beethoven and Mozart. (According to Wikipedia, they are also sometimes called “Complete Works.”)

Audra then proceeded to sing, accompanied by the USO, Gershwin song after Gershwin song, for the entire second act. This is why I spent nearly half the concert with my eyes shut: so that I might drink in more of the Gershwins’ glorious music. In a way, it was eye-opening. Our culture of celebrity worship sometimes has a tendency to make us lose a little perspective. I love and adore Audra and her work, but for me, starting in Act II, the concert became not about her, not even about George and Ira Gershwin themselves, but rather about the music – the most profoundly American music ever written. So I laid back and let the music wash over me like a warm bath.

After the stunning second act, needless to say, the entire auditorium was on its feet, practically begging for a second encore.

It never came. That’s the sad thing about great performances: they never last. But great works, like those of the Gershwins, do last, and I’m incredibly happy that our very own university is being given the opportunity to make George and Ira’s work truly immortal.

I admire Audra for many reasons. Audra’s stage presence is marked by a genuine generosity of spirit. She is never self-indulgent; a lyric she sang goes: “Fame, if you win it/Comes and goes in a minute.” The song is called “Make Someone Happy.” It’s all about selfless love. She said to us point-blank that when she does (musical theatre) master classes across the country, and people ask her which schools she recommends, that she says “Michigan” first. I think I know why: Michigan doesn’t just produce outstanding performers; it produces outstanding people, the kind of people who take the time to make someone (or many people) happy, even if it’s a full-time job.

I’ve never been prouder to be a Wolverine than I am today.