PSO Pops pays tribute to ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin |
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Just over a year after Aretha Franklin died, the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops will open its season with a tribute to the American icon.

Her voice was unforgettable and irresistible, but it was the conviction and style with which she used it that made her performances speak to everyone.

“When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her,” said Mary J. Blige.

Franklin’s appeal was universal. President George W. Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 2005. She sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Pops will present “Respect: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin,” with conductor John Morris Russell and three vocalists, Oct. 4-6 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall.

The Pops tribute program was created over the past year by conductor Russell and arranger and producer Scott Coulter.

“We had an embarrassment of riches to choose from,” says Russell. “We’ve broken things into three parts.”

Franklin was the daughter of a Baptist preacher, and her gospel roots shined in such songs as “Amazing Grace” and “Precious Lord.” Tamika Lawrence will recreate Franklin’s gospel hits.

Franklin won the Grammy for R&B for a stunning eight consecutive years, and quite a few after her streak was broken. Morris notes there’s a lot of gospel influence in the way she performed “Respect” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” CoCo Smith will take the lead in R&B.

Her range was enormous. She wasn’t an opera singer, but she substituted on very short notice for the indisposed tenor superstar Luciano Pavarotti in his signature aria, “Nessun dorma,” at the 1998 Grammy Awards.

Franklin had a fervent social conscience, embracing such causes as civil rights, women’s rights and the rights of Native Americans. But she emphasized that the message of “Respect” applies to everyone, including children and babies.

In the moment

Russell conducted when Franklin sang at an outdoor concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Pops, of which he is music director, on a blazing hot night in July 2017.

“She was totally in the moment,” he recalls. “It was up to us to accompany her,” helped by her music director who was at the piano.

“After the show and signing autographs, she was alone in her dressing room with the air conditioning cranked up. When I popped in to say hello, she had her shoes off, with her feet on the coffee table, and was fanning herself with the program and sipping an ice cold can of Vernors.”

Vernors is a ginger soda created in Detroit and popular in Great Lakes cities. She told Russell she had a great recipe for glazed ham, using a cup of brown sugar, a can of Vernors and some maraschino cherry juice. His family enjoyed her recipe at their Thanksgiving dinner four months later.

“On one hand, she was a regal presence, and on the other she was as down home as your mom. She possessed both in equal quantities,” Russell says. “Her eternal appeal is that she speaks to everyone.”

Singer Blain Krauss says he grew up in church, and that we all know R&B and soul music comes out of gospel.

He says his favorite of the songs he’ll sing is “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “I’ve been performing it since I was 6. It’s never not relevant.”

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