Review: Chicago Philharmonic’s Aretha Rising Paid (and Played) Respect
Chicago Philharmonic focused most of its 2021-22 season on great composers—such as Mozart, Copland, Brahms, Dvorak and Respighi—featured by most classical ensembles.
But more than most orchestras, Chicago Philharmonic takes excursions into more current popular music. And it did so with style in Aretha Rising, its jubilant tribute to the late Aretha Franklin performed Sunday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Apart from a couple of instrumental breaks, the Philharmonic’s 80-piece ensemble played backup for vocalists Capathia Jenkins and Darryl Williams.
Jenkins, a Broadway veteran with a big voice and an even bigger personality, isn’t the Queen of Soul, yet she gave royal treatment to Aretha’s signature songs: mega-hits such as “Chain of Fools,” “Respect,” “A Natural Woman,” and “Think”; the more subtle “At Last”; and her spiritual side, which included a gospel medley of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Climbing Higher Mountains,” and the hymn “Amazing Grace,” sung in duet with Williams.
Williams, who began his career as a gospel singer, utilized his multi-octave range on tunes that Aretha covered but which remain better identified with the male singers who originated the songs, such as “I Got You/I Feel Good” (James Brown), “A Change is Gonna Come“ (Sam Cooke), and “Try a Little Tenderness” (Otis Redding). He also soloed on American Songbook standard “The Birth of the Blues” and a rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and participated in a duet with Jenkins on a charming rendition of Unforgettable in which the two did a short dance together during an instrumental bridge.
The leads were well-supported by a trio of backup singers: Calli Graver, Nick Trawick and DeShana Wooden.
Even with their resonant stage voices, the singers were sometimes challenged by the orchestra that nearly filled the stage. But it did not diminish the enjoyment of the nearly full house. Many attendees spent the concert dancing in their seats and then on their feet for the finale of “Think.”
The playlist underscores Aretha Franklin’s crossover appeal. And while she co-wrote “Think” with Ted White, most of her songs were covers.
Some of the songs are today almost universally identified with Aretha. Redding, who originated the song “Respect,” has been widely quoted as saying, “I guess it’s that girl’s song now,” after hearing the version in which Aretha famously spelled out R-E-S-P-E-C-T. (Redding had just achieved stardom in his own right when he died in a 1967 plane crash.)
Other songs on the playlist might have been head-scratchers because they remain clearly identified with other artists. In the first half of the program alone there were “I Say a Little Prayer,” a Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit for Dionne Warwick; “Nobody Does It Better,” the Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager tune voiced by Carly Simon as the theme song for the 1977 James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me”; and “MacArthur Park,” the quirky 1968 epic composed by Jimmy Webb that was a hit for actor Richard Harris.
Yet Aretha performed them all. And when Hamlisch died in 2012, it was Aretha who was invited to perform “Nobody Does It Better” at a memorial concert.
It was appropriate that “Think,” first recorded in 1968, was the concert finale. That is not only because it was the biggest hit song that Aretha personally wrote, but because it was her reprise of the song in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers that ended what had been a lengthy career slump.
In 1980, the rock band Steely Dan released a rather despicable song titled “Hey, Nineteen,” about a man in his 30s offering tequila and pot to put the moves on a teenager with whom he has nothing in common. One line in the song treats Aretha Franklin in the past tense: “Hey, nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin. She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.”
Yet that same year, Aretha had a bit part in The Blues Brothers and almost stole the show from John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd with her rendition of “Think.” That performance inspired a career revival that resulted in a string of hits in the 1980s, after which she settled in as true popular music royalty until her death in 2018.
It is fair to say that her career had much better shelf life than that back-handed lyric by Steely Dan.
The concert ended Chicago Philharmonic’s 2021-22 formal schedule, but its 2022 summer schedule—which also leans heavily on popular music—was announced by executive director Terrell Johnson during the intermission. Its next performance is a concert with Grammy Hall of Fame singer Johnny Mathis at the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Michigan, on Friday, June 10; tickets priced at $79-$139 can be purchased by clicking here.
Closer to home, Chicago Philharmonic will play the score to a showing of the movie Marvel Studios’ Black Panther at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday, June 18. Tickets priced at $49.50-$129.50 can be purchased here.