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Diva and anti-diva, Audra McDonald grounds LSO opener

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It’s symphony time again in Lansing, but sit tight, Ludwig. Light up another stogie, Brahms. Shoot another round of pool, Wolfgang. Audra McDonald’s got this.

The noble profile of an American musical treasure, hovering over I-496 on a classy ad all summer, proclaims a coup for the home team and a unique opener to the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s 90th season.

McDonald has six Tony Awards on her shelf, more than any other performer in history, along with a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. She’s a TV star, a classical Grammy winner and can grow to 75 feet tall, if those billboards are accurate.

She will deploy her molten, ductile voice and winning stage presence Saturday, in a set of favorite songs from her vast Broadway catalogue and classics from the Great American Songbook.

It’s a rare visit, but not quite unprecedented.

“I did a tour of ‘The Secret Garden’ a million years ago, and one of the stops was East Lansing,” McDonald said in a phone interview. (It was in the 1993-94 season.)

“We’ve been trying to find a date for some time now, before I start filming this television show again in the fall.”

McDonald is carrying on a prolific, Emmy-winning TV career with her portrayal of attorney Liz Lawrence in “The Good Fight,” a legal-themed spinoff of “The Good Wife,” for CBS All Access.

“When I get a chance to sing with a symphony, it’s always an exciting thing for me,” she said.

The feeling is mutual.

Lansing Symphony maestro, Timothy Muffitt, hopes McDonald will help the symphony reach out to new listeners.

“Our regular classical concert goers will love her because she’s such a great musician, but also maybe we’ll get a few other people who are huge fans but maybe haven’t come to hear the orchestra before,” he said.

Juggling stage, concert and TV work comes naturally to McDonald.

“They all play off of each other,” she said. “The work I’ve done on the stage and on TV informs the concert work I do — gives it more specificity than it might have had — and I can bring the freedom of being onstage to my work in front of the camera.”

A grand concert tour will hit the spot after an intense, non-singing summer.

“I’ve just come off Broadway with ‘Frankie and Johnny,’ which is a very serious play — no singing, just speaking,” she said. 

In truth, she worked a tiny bit of singing into this summer’s Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s intimate, two-person play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune.” To cap the sex scene that opens the play, director Arin Arbus played cleverly off of McDonald’s musical persona by allowing her a free-form aria of bedroom ecstasy one reviewer called a “Puccini orgasm.”

Saturday, McDonald will stick to more structured material.

“I’ll be singing songs written as far back as 1930-something, all the way up to songs written as recently as 2008, and everything in between — Bernstein, Sondheim, Jule Styne, Gershwin and some of the younger composers as well,” she said.

Muffitt has worked with McDonald twice before.

“She brings an approach to this music that is fully developed,” he said. “This is where she lives, musically, and you feel it — we, her collaborators, and the audience, in a really exciting and engaging way.”

Juggling classic roles with new material, while upholding a dual persona of diva and anti-diva, McDonald is the personification of the energy, power and appeal of the new Broadway.

“Broadway has started to incorporate new blood to re-infuse the art form — not that the art form isn’t already brilliant, but you have to continue to nurture it,” McDonald said. “The classical world needs to nurture all the incredible, young, diverse talents that are out there, that are doing what they can to bring new voices in compositions.”

Muffitt said that the classical world can indeed learn a lot from McDonald’s polymorphic artistry, and from the way Broadway keeps re-inventing itself by folding in new themes, new talent and new forms of expression, as in the hip-hop-based “Hamilton.”

Lately, the maestro has been going through applications for a new composer-in-residence project in Lansing and he loves what he is hearing.

“This most recent generation of composers — they’re writing in a style that reminds me of new Broadway,” he said. “It’s still classical orchestral music, but they’ve taken the experience of being in this world in the 21st century and it’s coming out in the music. They’re not afraid to cross genres and styles. It’s not even a thing. It’s just the way it is.”

McDonald is used to swimming in musical cross-currents.

“I studied classically, but it’s not what I feel most comfortable doing,” she said. But that hasn’t stopped her from tackling big classical roles, including operas by Francois Poulenc and Kurt Weill. The latter project, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony,” won two Grammys, including Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Album of 2009.

“In the end, it’s all music,” she said. “It’s all communion between the artist and the audience, and about being in touch with our humanity.”

She relishes diving into a new project, but for her, a select bouquet of standards remains evergreen.

“I’ll always sing something by Sondheim — ‘The Glamorous Life.’ I’ll try and sing it when I’m 92,” she said. “I’ll probably have to be six octaves lower, but I’ll be singing it.”

Saturday, she’ll sing one of her signature songs, “The Stars and the Moon” by Jason Robert Brown. Toggling from wide-eyed wonder to grounded irony, she inflates a series of romantic balloons and pops them one by one.

“It’s never left my repertoire, I just love it so much,” she said. “'Summertime’ is another one I’ll never get tired of.” The Gershwin classic from “Porgy and Bess” is also on Saturday’s slate.

“Just keep lowering the key and I’ll sing it as long as I can.”

 

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Audra McDonald, guest vocalist

$30-75

Sat., Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m.

Wharton Center, Cobb Great Hall

750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing

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