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Actress and singer Audra McDonald, sings "A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man" during her performance at the San Francisco Symphony's Opening Night Gala in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. The gala opens the Symphony's 102nd season. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

With music by two Georges (Gershwin and Antheil) and one Lenny (Bernstein), the San Francisco Symphony returned on Tuesday to Davies Symphony Hall for its opening night Gala. Bookended by Antheil's rarely heard "A Jazz Symphony" and Gershwin's perennial "An American in Paris," it was a nifty All-American program, led by Michael Tilson Thomas to launch the orchestra's 102nd season.

The classiest part of the annual black-tie event came in the middle: actress-singer Audra McDonald, inhabiting five songs by Bernstein, then five more Broadway numbers, including two by Jule Styne. It's hard not to gush over McDonald. Even when overamplified (it happened Tuesday, too often), she enchants with her presence, her love and knowledge of song and lyric -- and that voice. It's elegant, earthy and almost absurdly plush, while sailing across its canyon-wide range.

How to resist her delivery of Bernstein's "A Little Bit in Love," from "Wonderful Town"? Here, McDonald -- she hasn't won all those Tony Awards for nothing -- became the starry-eyed ingenue, channeling herself through the lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Mm--mmm! / It's so nice to be alive / When you find someone who bewitches you. / Will he be my all, / Or did I just fall / A little bit, / A little bit in love?

Switching to the proto-feminist "A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man," again by Bernstein, Comden and Green (from "Wonderful Town," as well), she brought to life the gal who knows more about auto mechanics and baseball than any guy she dates. "First You Dream" by John Kander and Fred Ebb (from "Steel Pier") was both a statement of life's possibilities and a tribute to her father, who died in 2007 in an aviation accident:


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Close your eyes / And see how your spirit climbs. / You can fly.

McDonald joked that the songs she sang on stage at age 10, while growing up in Fresno, mean so much more to her now that she is 43. "Make Someone Happy," by Styne, Comden and Green (from "Do Re Mi") carried deep counsel about setting priorities straight:

Fame, if you win it, / Comes and goes in a minute. / Where's the real stuff in life to cling to?

Tilson Thomas -- McDonald's friend, mentor and fan -- bantered with her from the podium and joined in her sing-along to "I Could Have Danced All Night" by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (from "My Fair Lady").

At the start of Tuesday's concert, the conductor described Antheil as a brash and "card-carrying avant-gardist" who spent the 1920s in Europe, becoming pals with Dali and Picasso. "A Jazz Symphony," composed in Paris in 1925, is "an avant-garde scramble of elements of jazz" and other ingredients, including Stravinsky, Tilson Thomas explained.

Earlier, I'd heard composer John Zorn interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." Zorn is a master of the hard splice; he will compose 40 bars of music, jumping from genre to genre with each bar. "A Jazz Symphony" seemed very much the prototype for this mad-machine approach, jump-cutting from crackling rumba to sappy waltz, from hard textures to soft, from fast tempos to slow. Tuesday's performance featured two superb soloists: pianist Robin Sutherland (seamlessly navigating Antheil's jazz splashes and fulgent dissonances) and trumpeter Mark Inouye (growling through his mute, like Ellington's Bubber Miley in '25).

Gershwin's "An American in Paris" never loses its soft-shoe soulfulness. But this performance, in the end, felt by the book. One could sense that the orchestra is ready to dive into the meat of its 102nd season.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director

Next program: 8 p.m., Sept. 6-7; works by Ives, Antheil, Gershwin, Barber (violinist James Ehnes performs Barber's Violin Concerto)
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$156; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org