It’s a fairly safe assumption that by the time most superstar singers reach their 70s, they’re pretty set in their setlist ways. So there was plenty of reason to suspect that Diana Ross’ performance with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the host venue’s official season opener Saturday night would be essentially a reprise of the show she was doing in her Las Vegas residency this past winter, with strings attached. But in this case, the answer to that eternal question of hers — “Do you know where you’re going to?” — was, wonderfully, no.
Saturday’s show turned out to be a true one-off, filled with songs Ross rarely — or never — performs live; only seven of the 16 choices overlapped with the set the Supreme being was doing in Sin City earlier in the year. She’s veteran enough to know that when you score a pickup band as good as the 70-piece-plus that filled the Bowl stage, you make use of the occasion to mix it up a little. It was presumably conductor Thomas Wilkins’ influence at work in a lot of these choices, leaving out some familiar chestnuts in favor of more oboe-friendly obscurities. And if the main rationale was which tunes lent themselves toward the lushest arrangements, it had the welcome side effect of giving the most hardcore Ross aficionados an evening that felt “Upside Down” in all the right ways.
The first clue that this wouldn’t be a merely augmented version of a typical Ross show came with the opening number, which, for one of the few times in the last decade, was not “I’m Coming Out.” (That standby didn’t come out at all Saturday, to the disappointment of some, given an audience that surely had a substantial overlap with last weekend’s Pride parade.) Instead, she and the Bowl orchestra opened with “He Lives in You,” a song associated primarily with the “Lion King” musical, which, as far as just about anyone could remember, Ross was last seen performing in an Oprah appearance in the late ‘90s — which might have been one of the last times she had a full vocal ensemble in attendance to pull the tune off, like the Fred Martin Choir that sat (or stood) in on several numbers Saturday. Most likely, it was picked for that slot because of its tribal majesty, although you couldn’t rule out someone having realized that it’s actually the perfect holiday number for Father’s Day Eve.
From there, it was onto more familiar territory, at least for a while, with “More Today Than Yesterday,” which Ross has made enough of a tour staple over the decades that some fans probably mistake it for a Supremes tune, and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” which turned out to be the only actual Supremes number of the night. The typical medley of her original group’s material wasn’t much missed — except maybe by the minority of the audience that hadn’t seen a half-dozen Ross tours before — as she went on to concentrate mostly on singles from the mid-‘70s through early ‘90s, including rarely performed picks like “If We Hold On Together,” “It’s My Turn,” “Home,” and one that she surprisingly almost never pulled out on tour until last year, the “Mahogany” theme. There was reassuring familiarity at show’s end, in the form of “Upside Down,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — another tour certainty she’s fooled fans into imagining she originated — and “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” which has never required a full choir to succeed, but which doesn’t suffer from one, either.
But it was three outside choices in the middle of the show — all of which predated even the Supremes by decades — that gave the show a memorably historical and emotional core. “My Man” is a true oldie Ross performed at the Bowl a decade ago and brought back Saturday, even though it’s a song more often associated with Barbra Streisand and, Fanny Brice before Babs. That led naturally into a cover Ross is more closely tied to, via “Lady Sings the Blues,” the Billie Holliday classic “The Man I Love,” which brought out the saxes in the Bowl orchestra’s mix.
Prior to these, on the other side of a costume change, was a ‘70s standard — 1770s, that is — “Amazing Grace,” which Ross has not been known to pull out in performance before. Whether it was spiritual or strictly stylistic reasons that led her to go gospel just this once, she owned it far more than you would expect anyone who’s owned that many Bob Mackie gowns to have a righteous right to. She seemed to forget the words in the opening stanza, but the huge confluence of moving parts that is an orchestra somehow seamlessly moved back to the beginning with her, and she brought home the rest of the song like someone whose last residency had been at the Church of God in Christ, not the Wynn. She may have an Aretha-returns-to-church album in her yet.
Even in a show as music-focused as this one, a lack of costume changes would have been a disappointment, so there were just the right amount — two — revealing three variations on a theme, with Ross emerging each time nearly lost in colorful, all-consuming ruffles that eventually got downgraded to the longest train this side of Union Station before being laid aside to be retrieved by a lackey. Fortunately, she appears to have taken care of her voice in recent years as well as her handlers take care of wardrobe; a few of the rough edges that are an inevitable byproduct of 74 didn’t detract from the pleasure of hearing Ross go for it — as much as she ever has in her career — and unlazily land each number.
Stage banter was minimal, and not necessarily by Ross’ design, as she was working with a band larger than one she can easily cue (with some of her regular musicians joining the orchestra). “I wanted to talk, but it’s too late now,” she lamented over the opening of “Theme from Mahogany,” signaling the loss of some introductory story we were not destined to hear. She did get a word edgewise before the closing number, telling the audience that she had been “playing with my grandkids and I broke my ankle… That’s why I didn’t move around, guys. Didn’t you see I couldn’t move? I was doing lots of hand movements,” she joked, breaking into oversized breaststroke motions.
The lack of visible boogieing on Ross’ part hadn’t been much noticed, anyway, since it seemed as if she were being deferential to the spirit of the orchestra, if anything. Not every performer who gets hooked up with the Bowl orchestra is as willing to share; some previous headliners have used the mass of strings as subliminal backup more than equal partner. Her willingness to share the reins for a unique one-nighter was just another reason to call her Miss Boss.
Prior to intermission, Wilkins led the Bowl orchestra in a selection from John Williams’ “E.T.” score, then brought out 29 members of YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, to augment the adult players on Arturo Marquez’s “Conga del fuego nuevo.” As always, the opening night served as a benefit for the LA Phil’s work with YOLA and other educational outreach programs; this year’s gala was reported to have raised more than $1.75 million.