Audra McDonald returns to Davies Symphony Hall on Tuesday to perform at the gala opening of the San Francisco Symphony season, an event marking 15 years since her debut there.
“No! Is that true?” she gasps, genuinely surprised. “I’m that old? That’s terrible,” she laughs.
The 43-year-old stage, screen and concert hall star credits Michael Tilson Thomas with launching the latter aspect of her career in 1998, just after “Ragtime” and her third Tony Award. “He was the first conductor who reached out to me and said, ‘Come do this with us.’”
Her frequent reunions with him have not just been for a job. “I always learn something new. Each time I work with MTT it feels like going to a master teacher, yet there’s a familiarity and a comfort as well. I don't get nervous onstage with him. I feel very safe.”
A self-professed “creature of American musical theater,” her Davies performance, like her just-released CD “Go Back Home,” will present only American composers, “and one part we’re going to specifically dedicate to Bernstein.”
It’s been a year since McDonald closed a triumphant though initially controversial run of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” and she feels the role is “mostly out of my system, and that’s a good thing because her emotional life is just so heavy,” she says, adding, “The exhaustion is hard to leave at the theater, though. It’s a part that will drain you.”
The role put her in the record-making company of the recently deceased Julie Harris and the venerable Angela Lansbury as a five-time Tony winner. If she can pull out just one more career medallion, this time in the lead in a play category, she will break her own record and become the only holder of trophies in all four Broadway acting categories.
The prospect of such an accomplishment does not hold her interest. “It was great to be in a different category, but it doesn’t lessen any of the other roles I’ve played.”
Social justice does interest her. She’s thrilled for the advances in marriage equality, but worries about the recent changes in protections for voting rights and women’s health. “That’s a tragedy. Frightening on every level. People say, ’Oh, we’re not attacking at all. We’re just doing what’s right.’ You are being lied to your face about these issues.”
Her response? “I stay loud. You can’t be complacent and say, ‘Oh, too bad. Look where our country is turning.’ Stay loud and upset! That makes me feel like I’m doing something.”
IF YOU GO
Audra McDonald at San Francisco Symphony gala concert
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $160 to $295
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org
Note: Gala festivities, including a reception, dinner, premium concert seating and after-party, begin at 5 p.m.; tickets start at $395. For details, contact (415) 503-5500 or visit www.sfsymphony.org/gala.