Before a near-capacity crowd, sprinkled with youngsters, former “ooh and aahh” Supreme Mary Wilson appeared with the North Carolina Symphony as part of the Fidelity Investments Pops Series.
Before Wilson made her dramatic entrance came a composition that was both contemporary and classic: “Savannah River Holiday,” by now-retired Brown University professor Ron Nelson. Lively with heavy oboe, this jaunty, upbeat town tune featured just enough brass and base drums to keep things thumpin’, plus cymbals crashing for kids of all ages.
An expansive song of Southern splendor, this rousing opener allowed the woodwinds to shine. As usual, conductor William Henry Curry kept the strings steady, and made sure to highlight the lilting xylophone as he took us for an audio stroll through Savannah on a sunny, gusty day.
Following this spring holiday, came music familiar to nearly all: John Williams’ “Adventures on Earth” from ET: The Extra-Terrestrial , a wholly captivating voyage to another world. Even after (nearly) 30 years, the beckoning starry score makes one want to close your eyes, point a finger, and recall the friendly frontier far, far away. By the time the sections build and the entire orchestra crescendos, we’re all on board: flying with ET, with just enough bells to keep the imagined sky twinkling. The flight is smooth, the musical journey through a feel-good film universe — first class.
To close out this half of the program, conductor Curry served up a sweet, “Ladies Only” medley by various composers. Mellow yet risqué, the martini-ready syncopation provided a pulsating beat and nightclub lighting to match. The 60’shimmy-and-pop assortment of silky, sultry songs made one long for that simpler Doris Day/ Robert Goulet era.
After intermission, out sauntered Mary Wilson, looking beautiful in flowing baby blue satin, quite a bit of baubles and glittery gloves. Her voice – while deeper and with a hint of rasp –is still caramel smooth; and what she lacks in movement, she makes up for in passion. Together with the symphony and her own back-up band, including an outstanding acoustic guitarist and grand pianist front ‘n center, Wilson immediately went for the familiar sing-along hits from her “days with Diana:” “Baby Love,“ ”Love Child,” “Without You,” and more. Interspersed with the oldies: Broadway standards and even a contemporary touch: Sting.
Two strong back-up singers provided perfect harmony for the evening’s highlight, the slow emotional ballads: “Spring is Here,” and after a grateful callout, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” But the ballad that brought the biggest cheer: “Body and Soul.” And for those who momentarily relaxed, Wilson invited any women brave enough to join her onstage to sing, clap and rock along with her. At least a dozen took her up on the offer, and were jubilantly swaying along to classic favorite: “Stop in the Name of Love.”
Between sets, Ms. Wilson turned serious, reflecting on her fellow soul singer, the late Florence Ballard, their legacy, slavery, grandchildren, current world problems, and stressing what could cure all: love.
When the full Symphony joined her once again, we were treated to rich, robust versions of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” and — after joking about the extreme similarities between the play and real life — “I am Dreaming,“ from Dreamgirls.
The entire audience left content, lighter, and ready to dance the night away, grateful for a supreme escape thanks to a fantastic orchestra, Mary Wilson, and a two hours of marvelous musical memories.
by Caren Ostrow
See what’s coming up next with your new NC Symphony at ncsymphony.org