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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.