Music is an art of transitions: note to note, phrase to phrase, moment to moment. Audra McDonald’s strengths as a musician have always been best sensed in transitions, the way the singer shifts among registers and styles with uncanny fluidity. At every turn in her Celebrity Series recital at Symphony Hall on Sunday, the six-time Tony Award-winner already was where the music needed her to be, vocally and interpretively, without perceptible shift or effort. What was interesting was how her repertoire mirrored that quality: songs of change and uncertainty, nonetheless sung with incomparable immediacy and commitment.
Her opener, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Sing Happy,” provoked cathartic, weather-related laughter (“Sing me a happy song about robins and spring”), but the song’s rueful, even angry plea for cheer foreshadowed a program filled with conflicting emotions and time-shifted yearning. McDonald sang it with lavish sound — her voice seems to grow ever grander, especially her low and middle ranges — but also a quicksilver mix of head-voice point and pop-anthem drive, diction evoking casual clarity while maintaining consistent resonance and intonation.
As the dramatic demands varied, McDonald’s technique deftly followed. In Stephen Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” — a McDonald standard — the vowels snapped into place with classical precision, amplifying the emotional intensity; in another standby, Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon,” more speech-like production primed the character’s late-dawning realization of the gap between wants and needs. (The performance brought out McDonald’s showbiz-trouper core, a memory slip producing disarming comedy followed by a defiant redoubling of interpretive risk.)
McDonald’s band — musical director and pianist Andy Einhorn, bassist Dave Phillips, and percussionist Gene Lewin — displayed similar flexibility, in ways both obvious (all three switching to ukuleles for Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love”) and unobtrusive: for Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich’s “Baltimore,” a densely wordy ode to disastrous dating, the trio smartly cycled through varieties of tempo, groove, and feel.
That number ventured into zanier territory, as did two of Gabriel Kahane’s ingeniously evocative “Craigslistlieder,” but even when the concert turned more poignant, the range and fluency remained. Adam Gwon’s “I’ll Be Here” — a gentle 9/11-themed monologue — led into Jule Styne’s more insistent “Make Someone Happy,” connected via McDonald’s effortless flip from the former’s conversational undulation to the latter’s showstopping soar.
Perhaps most emblematic was Shaina Taub’s tricky, clever “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” a lifetime’s unrealized plans and unexpected epiphanies refracted into an unorthodox children’s story. McDonald made it simple yet not, plain yet mysterious. But the song’s message could also describe McDonald’s artistry: The most important changes sometimes happen without you even noticing.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.