It isn't often that a Grammy-winning professional soloist takes second billing to an amateur on the same orchestral program. But, then again, Al Jarreau usually doesn't share billing with a former U.S. secretary of state.
So, with apologies to Jarreau fans, thoughts on his portion of Friday night's annual Omaha Symphony Gala concert will appear on the next page. The true musical “headliner” was guest pianist Condoleezza Rice, who envisioned quite a different life in her youth than the one in which she became the first African-American woman to serve as the nation's top diplomat.
Had she not changed career paths, however, Rice may never have had the chance to accompany famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as she did in Washington, D.C., in 2002 when she was national security adviser.
So when she took the Holland Performing Arts Center stage to perform the first movement of Robert Schumann's “Piano Concerto in A minor,” Rice — who entered Denver University intending a classical piano career — brought some reputable credentials with her.
She did well. No, she won't be confused with the fiery piano virtuosos who typically visit the Holland. But Rice was as poised and polished on the concert stage Friday night as she long has been on the world stage. She played with confidence, technical accuracy, fine dynamic control and a restrained but honest expressiveness — all highly suitable for the Schumann concerto, a staple of the early Romantic piano repertoire.
Music Director Thomas Wilkins welcomed Rice to the stage after leading the symphony through a joyous, boisterous rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich's “Festive Overture.” The ensemble, by contrast, notably dialed down its volume behind Rice. The effect, however, showcased Rice's skills to her advantage while enhancing the teamwork of the performance.
She certainly seemed to enjoy herself. While President George W. Bush's secretary of state, Rice would join four like-minded amateur string players — lawyers all — to perform chamber-music works in private Washington residences. As she told the New York Times in 2006, she had let her music slide for years but resumed lessons in the 1990s. Playing piano, she said then, is “the time I'm most away from myself, and I treasure it.”
Some people question why schools devote time and resources to teaching the performing arts when so few students will ever make money at it. In sharing her musical gifts with Omaha Friday night, Rice testified to the power of the arts to heal the soul and to make unforgettable memories with the people on both sides of a stage.
Now, back to Jarreau, whose nine-song set made up Friday's second act. Now 73, he retains an impressively broad vocal range, sharply honed skills in scat and vocalese singing and an infectious stage presence. Age, sadly, has replaced his once-luscious vocal resonance with raspiness. But to put the matter in baseball terms, he compensates for a slower fastball by stressing his other pitches. And they're usually more than enough.
Jarreau had his best vocal moments in applying a smooth jazz approach to two Gershwin hits from “Porgy and Bess” and imitating a wild alto saxophone on the immortal Paul Desmond-Dave Brubeck hit “Take Five.” His 1970s pop chart-toppers, however, seemed to backfire — because his guitarist and much younger backup singer, Chris Walker, sounds too much like Jarreau used to sound.