Last Saturday night saw the opening gala concert of the Seattle Symphony season, always fun, with programming which is upbeat and mostly lighthearted, a prelude to the more serious programming of the regular season which begins next week. It always has a lure to draw in people who don’t come regularly but who just might after enjoying this, and Saturday’s was mezzo-soprano opera singer Joyce DiDonato, whose vocal fame is matched by her reputation for fun-loving charm.
Music director Ludovic Morlot has to toe a careful line for this annual concert, creating a program that is both froth and one which has music of some weight, even if it’s bright and lively. It was a master stroke to include two overtures two centuries apart, both of which are heraldic, optimistic, and contemporary for their time, starting with Handel’s Overture to “Music for the Royal Fireworks” from 1749 and, later in the program, Bernstein’s Overture to West Side Story (1957). They showed off the orchestra’s ability to play Baroque style in the exciting earlier work and equally well in the equally exciting but gutsier style of the 1950s.
Morlot has long wanted to program DiDonato and the result was worth the wait. For the first half of the program, clad in a beautiful salmon-orange gown, she came across as the diva she is, singing three Baroque opera arias, all of which required awesome technique and control, an extraordinary range and ability to leap from one end of the scale to the other with equal facility, lovely tone, and apparent ease. Her articulated runs at warp speed, each note equal, in tune, boggled the mind.
Had this been all, it would have been enough, but she brought such feeling to each aria. In Pacini’s “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro,” her outrage and pride were obvious, while in Handel’s familiar ”Ombra mai fu,” in which she is singing a prayer for a tree’s wellbeing, her exquisite, liquid shaping of the phrases brought a feeling of thankfulness to her singing. Lastly, she sang Rossini’s “Tanti affetti” in which she started all innocence and ended up pert and sassy.
The one solemn moment came at the start of the second half. DiDonato came out alone—this time in sparkling silver—and sang, unaccompanied, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Audience and orchestra rose, and she sang to complete silence. A very moving moment. The national anthem is always sung at the start of the season, but I never remember it being done like this.
Then, she whipped out a microphone and sang familiar songs from musicals and one folk song for the rest of the program. Before she began “Danny Boy” she mentioned that she’d grown up as Joyce Flaherty, an Irish-American kid from Kansas, so the Irish song was dear to her. In “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, she produced a low register of almost organ sounds, they were so rich, while in “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, she twirled like a happy teen. (Her singing of this was the least satisfying of the evening. She used her mature rich voice, which felt not quite right for a young girl.)
Most amusing was “Embraceable You,” from Girl Crazy. Here she suited action to the words, making up to all the male musicians within reach, rumpling second violinist Michael Miropolsky’s white hair and setting her cheek beside others, even taking a few ballroom dance steps with Morlot who left the orchestra to manage without him for a few measures. All the while she was singing with a gleam in her eye, and the audience responded with gales of laughter.
The program ended with a third Overture, Bolcom’s jazzy “Ragomania,” but audience applause brought DiDonato back for a couple of encores, both, as she explained, right choices for a small town Kansas girl: “Kansas City” from Oklahoma, and “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz.