On Saturday night a pared-down version of the Minnesota Orchestra provided the occasion for iconic singer Judy Garland to come back to life, at Orchestra Hall. With exuberant guest conductor Doug Katsaros decked out in white tails, the group performed 25 songs with the Grand Rapids native, who was shown on three large screens above the stage.
First presented last year in Boston to sold-out crowds, the Minnesota Orchestra picked up the Garland program for their Sounds of Cinema Festival, which has featured movies like The Wizard of Oz and The Gold Rush. The orchestra played live while accompanying film footage from a variety of Garland’s performances on stage and television.
The performance featured both well-known and unfamiliar songs, with montages of Garland’s personal life and career shown on the screens throughout the performance. Narration between numbers told the story of her life in show business, starting at the age of 2½ performing with her older siblings as the Gumm Sisters, and ending with her untimely death in London in 1969. During that time she made movies, hosted a television show, performed hugely successful live shows, and had three children, who sometimes joined her onstage. Garland surrendered a normal childhood to work in the business, married five times and attempted suicide more than once.
The best moments on Saturday night showed Garland’s dramatic range and lovely voice in such numbers as “The Trolley Song,” “You Made Me Love You,” and “San Francisco,” which also featured some energetic dance steps. Crowd favorite “Over the Rainbow” had Garland in hobo face—a curious choice but nonetheless brimming with emotion and beauty. Watching these clips, one could tell that Garland clearly loved singing and was born to entertain; in fact, it sometimes felt like she was singing for her life. To watch her break down in tears at the end of poignant songs like “Cottage for Sale” and “Old Man River” was heartbreaking.
Because the footage was all in black and white, it was not immediately apparent that the orchestra’s own musicians were occasionally featured on the side screens in live video. At first the marriage of live and recorded sounds was a bit jarring, but it didn’t take long to get used to the concept. For the most part the balance in volume between orchestra and singer was well-maintained. Kudos to the conductor and musicians for matching the recorded tempos (the snare drummer earns my MVP award for keeping the changing beat constant). As a lifelong fan who was too young to ever experience Judy Garland sing on television, seeing her with the Minnesota Orchestra was a real treasure.