If I could whisper – respectfully -- to Aretha Franklin I'd suggest she find a more convincing overture than the one she used when she sang with the Detroit Symphony. Her idea, I think, was to introduce herself as someone grand and inspirational. But does she need that? She's one of the most important musicians of our age and surely the most powerful singer alive. And the music she used -- a medley of the "2001" fanfare, the "Chariots of Fire" theme and a snatch of "Jesus Christ Superstar" -- has lost its conviction, because too many people have drawn on it. "You're better than that," I'd like to whisper. "And if you're going to sing with orchestras, why not use real orchestral music?"
Not, of course, that "2001" isn't written for orchestra, or at least was in its original form as the beginning of Richard Strauss's tone poem "Also sprach Zarathustra." But for most of the medley, Ms. Franklin's strongly amplified band eclipsed the Detroit Symphony and highlighted her pianist, Richard Gibbs, who gave the "Chariots of Fire" tune more life and heart than it probably deserved.

But look at me! I'm turning into one of those curmudgeon critics, whose kvetching would normally drive me up a wall. Here's another way to start. Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit, and still lives there. Surely she's the town's most famous current citizen. She's appeared in concert halls before -- with the Boston Symphony, for instance, and the Philadelphia Orchestra -- but never in her home city, despite the Detroit Symphony's considerable reputation under its current music director, Neeme Järvi.
So this was an Occasion, with the capital O written
in flames against the Michigan sky. Detroit's Mayor Dennis W. Archer was there, along with Michigan Rep. John Conyers and a host of civic dignitaries, both white and black. People from the Symphony's board and management told me they were thrilled. This, after all, is one of the very few American orchestras that pays honest attention to its city's African-Americans. It's developing real estate around Orchestra Hall, its traditional home, and as part of that project will build a new home for Detroit's High School for the Fine and Performing Arts. With any luck, all this will help revitalize the city's downtown (and, thanks to clever structuring of deals for real estate built on donated land, will even make the Symphony money). A summit meeting with Aretha Franklin builds the orchestra's stature, proclaiming it a serious player in Detroit's civic life.
Besides, Ms. Franklin's mere presence on any stage is a thrill. "A Rose Is Still a Rose," proclaims the title of her latest album, with the words "what I am is what I am." floating in the background of the first song. That phrase is a quote from Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, a fey alternative band of 10 years ago, and the improbability of this link -- the Queen of Soul and alternative rock -- underlines contradictions we can't do anything about. Ms. Franklin wants to be classic and contemporary, seasoned and young, earthy and glamorous, highbrow and pop, someone whose vocal range extends even to opera, but who still hasn't lost her gospel roots.

So we'd better just ignore her overture, and also look away from the corps de ballet she brought onstage while she sang "Angel," one of her older hits, even though the choreography looked like it came from a really bad junior high school Christmas play. What matters is that she really is the Queen of Soul. Look at her, and you see a large woman with a disarmingly shy and eager baby face. Let her speak just one word, though, and if you know her history, you're reminded of the first recording session for her first big hit, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," as it's powerfully described in Peter Guralnick's book, "Sweet Soul Music." She sat down at the piano, played one chord, and the musicians -- most of whom had never heard of her -- understood immediately how the song went, and how their own parts should be arranged. So in Detroit, when she told us to clap our hands, we had to do it; she has that much authority.
Her program was a little like the records she's been making for the last decade on the Arista label -- the songs mattered less than her singing, though they were a nice mix of old and new, ranging from her great years at Atlantic Records ("Respect" as well as "Angel") to her less frequent, more recent hits ("Freeway of Love"). Maybe one song, the old doowop standard "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" seemed too elementary for so great a singer, but even there she sounded stupendous.
First, there's the sheer health of her voice, life surging through it with enough power to make her almost a monument, the vocal equivalent of a great forest, or the Grand Canyon. But she's a monument who, vocally speaking, can dance with pinpoint rhythmic flexibility, teasing the beat, and then slamming home a line at precisely the right instant, so you snap to attention even if you thought you weren't listening.
That's why she triumphs even with Puccini. She sang "Nessun Dorma," from "Turandot," at this year's Grammy awards; in Detroit, she sang "Vissi d'arte," from "Tosca." You could say, with perfect truth, that her Italian could hardly sound more naively American, and that her style is hardly classical. But she makes the music go, like an innocent who finds wonders that scholars overlook, and her high note at the end could have brought the dead to life.

The Symphony opened the evening, with a mostly African-American program featuring Duke Ellington and William Grant Still, the first important black symphonic composer (1895-1978), whose work we ought to hear more often. They were led by their resident conductor, Leslie B. Dunner, who's the model of what orchestras are looking for these days, someone who can talk to the audience as smoothly as any pop figure. He was charming, but the orchestra sounded slack (though, to be fair, they'd just returned from a tour of Japan, and may still have been jet-lagged). They were outplayed by the DSA All-Stars, phenomenal kids from the High School of Fine and Performing Arts, who stopped the show with an elaborate arrangement of a Dizzy Gillespie tune.
Later, the DSO's brass section belted out some juicy licks, for instance in their orchestral version of the famous Jimmy Wright sax solo in "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" But I can't say that Ms. Franklin made much use of the Symphony. There's no real role for an orchestra when she sings R&B, and so I'll let the curmudgeon make one last appearance, to wish she'd done more of the jazz tunes she recorded at the start of her career, where an orchestra could shine, transformed into the equivalent of a big band with strings.
But it's pointless to complain. She's Aretha Franklin, she does what she does -- and if I were less inhibited I would have jumped from my seat about a dozen times during the concert, screaming her name.

Wall Street Journal, December 9, 1998

I did once jump screaming from my seat at a Luther Vandross show. I don't remember deciding to do it. All I know is that suddenly I was standing up and shouting his name. But that was ten years ago, in my pop music days. See how bad classical music can be? It made me inhibited -- though to be fair, Orchestra Hall is a little more staid that whatever arena I heard Luther in, and the Detroit audience was a little more staid, too. I've reviewed Aretha before, by the way, and couldn't resist teasing her more than I did here.