Go Deeper

“Ain’t No Way” you could’ve predicted Aretha Franklin and Condoleezza Rice’s duet at the Mann

Posted July 28th, 2010

A secretary of state and a queen met in Philadelphia last night, but it was no political summit. Condoleezza Rice and Aretha Franklin performed together at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts to raise money for the Mann’s educational programs. One of the perks of being a Hurford Humanities Center intern is that sometimes you get free tickets to things, which is especially great when the bill boggles your mind like this one. And if a duet between Condoleezza Rice and Aretha Franklin seems unusual—well, that’s probably the best word to describe last night’s performance.

Read all about it after the jump:

We sat wayyyy up on the grass where the views of Philly’s glassy skyline and the almost-full moon competed with the views of the stage. If I could draw a pie-chart for audience demographics, probably 60% were old lady Aretha fans, 5% were former Bush administration supporters with picnic wine kits in tote, and 35% were just too curious to stay away. Oh, and this lone protestor stood silently at the entrance:

Condoleezza came onstage to enthusiastic clapping from that above 5% and joined the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. Her playing seemed well-rehearsed, polite, a bit stiff, and quick—they had her on and off the stage faster than you can say 9/11 Commission. And she didn’t come back until long after we’d all forgotten about her, because the Queen of Soul had taken the stage.

Let’s just say I was sitting far away enough to make Aretha look small, but she was a vision in lavender satin. She started with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” right out of the gate, to roars of appreciation from the crowd. Aretha may be almost 70, but she’s still got it. She seductively removed her shawl and flung her elbow-length rhinestone-studded gloves to the floor to tickle the ivories herself on a song from her new album A Woman Falling Out of Love. Though her liberal renditions of classical pieces like Gluck’s ” Che faro senza Euridice” probably made the purists in the audience wince, she owned them. Never before had the term diva been more accurate than with all the drama and attitude with which she crooned the classical Italian, without straying from her signature soul style. On her drawn-out riff at the end of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” she probably slid up and down every note in the major scale, but the orchestra looked a little bored—there’s not a lot for the cellists to do on R&B hits like “Think.”

Condoleezza finally joined Aretha for “Say A Little Prayer” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the end of the program, when most people were already leaving to beat the parking lot rush. But the most exciting duet of the night wasn’t between “the Diva and the Diplomat,” as the pair are already being called. In one of Aretha’s many shout-outs of the performance (she touchingly dedicated “Make Them Hear You” to Philadelphian Rev. Doc. Louise Williams Bishop), she called ex-con Ronnie Isley of the Isley Brothers out of the audience to sing “Memories” with her.

The night certainly had it’s surreal moments (when Aretha inexplicably left the stage for five minutes, those few bars in “Say a Little Prayer” when either the sound went off or there was some kind of confusion between the two performers, some questionable octave-hopping on Aretha’s part, and when all the 60-year-olds in the audience started grooving to “Chain of Fools” and I wondered whether it was possible that in the 60s there were clubs filled with people “dancing” that way) but I think everyone went home happy—the Mann raised a lot of money, Bush administration loyalists got a taste of the good old days, and Aretha proved to everyone that she’s still the Queen of Soul.

Nick, can you look into getting Condoleezza and Aretha back together for Live Arts 2011?

–Ellen Freeman

Photos by Ellen Freeman