She’s No Streisand

Photo: Courtesy of Nonesuch/Carnegie Hall

Audra McDonald first attracted my attention several years ago on Broadway, singing a killer Verdi aria in Terrence McNally’s egregious Maria Callas fantasy, Master Class. That got opera folks all excited, but don’t expect to see McDonald at the Metropolitan anytime soon. Neither Violetta nor Aïda seems to be on her agenda, to judge from the tasty compilation of Broadway songs at her recent Carnegie Hall concert and from the crossover program she’ll likely sing at her next New York gig, at Central Park SummerStage on June 29. Too bad. This voice can clearly do most anything—its range is already demonstrably enormous.

No, McDonald is now safely and happily ensconced in the larger world of popular musical culture, and that rather messy milieu is all the more orderly for it. She is most frequently compared to Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, but I don’t hear that connection at all. McDonald’s vibrant voice, which resists conventional categorization, can perform technical feats and move into areas never available to those pop divas, for all their individuality and charisma. Her Juilliard training, I suppose, accounts for that, but she wears her learning lightly, and the solid basis from which she sings is noticeable only if you consciously listen for it as she nimbly adjusts from one vocal style to the next.

McDonald’s Broadway program was a dazzling demonstration of precisely that, especially since so many of these songs are so strongly associated with specific singers from the past. I never thought anyone could rival Barbara Harris in “Gorgeous” from The Apple Tree, but McDonald borrowed this deliciously self-regarding aria and turned it into an operatic tour de force. “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” is an achingly painful lament as sung by Ethel Waters, but we heard it here as a sensuously phrased love song, tender yet without a trace of sentimentality. Even “I Could Have Danced All Night” sounded freshly minted as the audience accepted McDonald’s invitation to join in. Not one of the songs asked her to do exactly the same thing twice, and the easy virtuosity as she entered their musical worlds was awesome: her total control of dynamic adjustments, seamless integration of registers, fascinating play of vocal colors, artful bending of words to make an exact fit with the note, and creative use of the microphone as an expressive device rather than a mere boost in volume. The more subtle the song, the more intimately this voice seems to connect with its musical intricacies—the surprising harmonic displacements and unexpected lyrical directions of Guettel’s “Dividing Day” from The Light in the Piazza couldn’t have been more fully appreciated or pointedly communicated.

I suspect that few people paid much attention to all these niceties but simply enjoyed the visceral vocal results, especially as heard in the context of the discreet and sophisticated accompaniments provided by an instrumental ensemble led by Ted Sperling. McDonald is nothing if not a friendly and chatty concert presence, always comfortable with what she wants to tell us and how she wants her audience to perceive her. Such a laid-back manner strikes me as yet another huge difference between this supremely self-aware artist and the more hyper Streisand or stressed-out Garland personae. Ninety minutes in her presence seem to fly by in a few seconds. Doubtless for some, McDonald comes across as just too self-possessed and sure of who she is, lacking the dangerous edge that we apparently require in our most adored pop idols. Sorry about that, but I find her composure and security refreshing.

What a great evening. I still rather hanker to hear McDonald in Verdi again, but for now whatever she wants to sing is okay with me.

Audra McDonald
Carnegie Hall. April 29.

She’s No Streisand