PHILADELPHIA – Condoleezza Rice is no stranger to the whims of royalty. So when the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, decided the two should get together to play a song or two for charity, it was decreed.
The former U.S. secretary of state and Franklin took the stage Tuesday evening at Philadelphia’s Mann Music Center in a rare duet for Rice, the classically trained pianist, and Franklin, the divalicious voice of a generation. Their aim was to raise money for urban children and awareness for music and the arts.
“It is a joint effort for the inner-city youth of Philadelphia and Detroit,” Franklin told The Associated Press the night before their concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“We decided to give it a try,” Franklin said. “So here we are, in the city of Brotherly — and Sisterly — Love.”
Their appearance in the three-hour concert before an estimated crowd of 8,000 overflowed with Franklin’s catalog of hits and arias from the world of opera and classical music.
Rice, better known as a diplomat and national security adviser, played piano while Franklin sang her hit “I Say A Little Prayer” as well as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Earlier in the program, Rice performed a selection from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor with the orchestra, a piece she said she practiced furiously.
Franklin even tickled the ivories a few times Tuesday night, including for a song off her new album “A Woman Falling Out of Love,” to be released later this year. She also sang a duet — “The Way We Were” — with surprise guest Ronald Isley.
Rice’s given name is derived from the Italian opera stage instruction con dolcezza, meaning “with sweetness.” Long a musician of note, she played from elementary school through college and beyond, in quartets and performing chamber music.
She has even played with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But, she said this was “the first time I’ve played with an orchestra since I was 18.”
When she learned that Rice played classical music, Franklin sent for one of her recordings “to hear what she sounded like.”
Previously, she said, “All I had seen of Dr. Rice was in a political atmosphere. It just seemed foreign that she would be a classical pianist.”
Franklin was surprised.
“She really does play,” Franklin said. “She’s formidable.”
The two met at a White House function, Rice recalled. “We were just talking and chatting and she said ‘You play, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said we should do something together.”
Rice told the AP their plan to play together was borne of their mutual appreciation for music and determination to keep it near and accessible to children.
Franklin, relaxing in her hotel suite and holding a single long-stemmed peach-hued rose, deplored school budget cuts of music and arts programs as “a travesty” that cannot be allowed.
“Imagine what all of this would be without music. If you have to cut, cut something else. Not the music. We need the music. It soothes the savage beast. We need the music.”
Rice, in a separate interview, agreed.
“Nothing makes me more unhappy than when I hear people talk about music education in the schools as extracurricular,” Rice said.
Both women lauded each other’s talents, and abilities, but Rice made it clear she’ll leave the singing to Franklin.
“You do not want to hear me sing!” Rice said. “I’m a good choir musician, but I think I will stick to playing the piano.”