It's not often that you get to see the symphony crowd, populated as it is by S.F. society types and mostly a bit long in the tooth, get on their feet and get funky. But that is what happened last night when Janelle Monáe performed with the full San Francisco Symphony, as well as her own Arch Orchestra. She did about a dozen songs, culminating at about the two-thirds point with her hit "Tightrope," after which she came back with an encore of her new single "Q.U.E.E.N." And throughout Monáe had this crowd, only half of whom were probably familiar with her, awed and grinning.
She is, undoubtedly, one of the country's greatest singing talents at work today. Very few singers we're thinking a short list here consisting of Adele, Mariah, and maybe Christina Aguilera have voices big and powerful enough to withstand the tidal wave of sound that comes from a full orchestra, without the buffering aid of a soundboard or production team. But Monáe took command of the stage with her first song, "Sincerely, Jane," and never wavered, belting out songs like "Cold War" (a powerful and grand version with such a huge string section behind her), covering the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," and crooning through her ode to Georgia, "Peachtree Blues," with equal finesse and extraordinary energy, and not a single sour note.
It was fantastic show, and one that people will talk about for years.To see a performer this great, at the top of her game, in such close quarters and with the lush accompaniment of 70-odd musicians, is not something you easily forget.
Also, she danced. The stage at Davies has not seen a ton of dancing over the years, but Monáe brought her signature, James Brown-inspired grooviness to the evening last night, even climbing down into the audience and working the aisles when she came to the "booty don't lie" section of "Q.U.E.E.N." - which got every cumberbunned gentlemen and rhinestone-crusted-gowned lady to his or her feet, dancing right with her. The rows of cellists and violinists, not used to having to keep a beat quite this rocking, sat still and respectful as the Arch Orchestra's electric violin and cello players rocked out centerstage alongside the "funkiest horn section in [the] metropolis."
The event was a benefit for the San Francisco Symphony's Adventures in Music program, which brings music programs to otherwise music-deprived kids in SF Unified School District campuses, and all told seems to have been a huge success in terms of broadening the Symphony's base. The crowd was, by and large, far younger than its usual audience, and the event extended to an afterparty in the City Hall rotunda, at which this younger audience drank and danced some more to a Michael Jackson cover band.
Monáe left the stage by the end of the show saying that she was truly "humbled" by the standing ovations (she got at least two), and by the opportunity to perform with a full orchestra, which she said was her life's dream. Next up, she's supposed to be performing with the Chicago Symphony, and they, like some of the people present last night, may not know what hit them when it's all over.