From Diana Ross to Bach Festival choir, Residency Festival shines | Review

The first Residency Festival at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is in the books, and two concerts I caught over the weekend aptly demonstrate the breadth of variety in its offerings: An audience with the legendary Diana Ross on Friday and an evening of classic choral works on Sunday.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London, conducted by Edwin Outwater, was at the base of the entire six-concert series. But there was another connection between these two particular performances: The Bach Festival Society of Winter Park.

The Bach Festival Choir performed Sunday’s vocal selections, while its Youth Choir backed Ross on multiple numbers during her feel-good sashay down memory lane.

Ross, who will turn 80 in March, emerged in a riot of orange ruffles, later revealed to be concealing a dress of orange sequins. “We’re going back to the good old days,” she announced, and was true to her word: “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Touch Me in the Morning,” in which the orchestra’s strings added extra oomph to the entrance.

She even got a Disney song in — “He Lives In You” from the stage version of “The Lion King” — with plucking cellos complementing the rhythmic percussion.

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Ross’s voice was very low in the amplified sound mix at the concert’s start and the youth choir was all but lost on several numbers. But the sound improved, and Ross herself acknowledged the Bach group and motioned for her backup vocalists and the musicians to lower their volume so the young singers could be heard. I’m glad she did; they added a purity to a sweetly comforting “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”

“The Wiz” soundtrack offered two treats: A shimmying “Ease on Down the Road” and a heartfelt “Home.” But the show’s unexpected high point was a gorgeous arrangement of the old hymn “Amazing Grace,” from a dramatic orchestral fanfare opening to the angelic choir to Ross’s vocal performance, full of her own faith, strength and perseverance.

Beaming throughout the 100-minute show, Ross was affable, effusive in sharing the spotlight, almost playful at times — but always in full regal command of the stage.

One amusing moment: Ross urged the musicians to rise to receive the audience’s approbation and they looked to maestro Outwater — who would usually decide whether they sit or stand — for guidance. It’s OK, musicians. In this instance royalty, even pop royalty, trumps the man with the baton.

Thoughts of royalty provide a convenient segue to Sunday’s show, which boasted two pieces heard at the coronation of Britain’s King Charles III, who just happens to be patron of the Royal Phil.

“God save the king!” rang out through the hall as the singers and players found their fortissimo in a reading of Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” that can only be described as majestic. Then a swift change of mood for a coronation Agnus Dei by Tarik O’Regan that Outwater described as “serene,” but I would go even further and say “ethereal.”

Other highlights: The beautiful “Humming Chorus” from “Madam Butterfly,” in which the orchestra demonstrated a lovely lightness while providing poignant accents to the choir’s sustained notes, and a lusty “Anvil Chorus” from “Il Travatore.”

The singers took a break while the Royal Phil dazzled with Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin Waltz,” the delicious swells in the music conjuring a ballroom full of elegantly swirling dancers. But the Bach singers were back for the finale, a rousing rendition of Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” that leapt from thrill to thrill.

Equally thrilling: This was an acoustic performance. And I’ve still never attended an amplified show at Steinmetz that measures up to the acoustic concerts. That’s where the hall truly shines. And Sunday night, it was ablaze.

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