Cécile McLorin Salvant, Silvana Estrada Provide Two Master Classes for the Price of One in Brilliant Disney Hall Double Header: Concert Review

There was no official explanation offered for exactly why Silvana Estrada and Cécile McLorin Salvant were co-headlining a show at Walt Disney Concert Hall — and none was needed, for discerning L.A. audiences who know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. These two have little in common, representing such different cultures, styles and even languages… and everything in common, too, being among the greatest vocalists of their generations. So, why ask ¿por qué? The idea of pairing them certainly could have been generated by the LA Phil organization, which has fruitfully hosted both performers on their own before. It could have come from one artist’s camp or the other, given the mutual admiration society they obviously share. Whoever thought to match them up, the magic of McLorin Salvant and Estrada coming together made for a throughly delightful “only in L.A.” moment. (Even if it’s theoretically possible that someone in New York would have been smart enough to book it.)

One thing they have in common, other than the LA Phil’s -philia for both of them, is that they get Grammy love, too, although they’ll probably never wind up competing in the same categories. McLorin Salvant won the best jazz album award in 2016, 2018 and 2019 (which sounds like a lot, but it’s easy to think of other years where she was robbed, like 2022, but that’s OK). As a younger singer, Estrada won the Latin Grammy for best new artist in 2022, and, although she hasn’t put out any full albums since the full-length debut, “Marchita,” that earned her that honor, she was nominated for a “regular” Grammy this year for best global music performance for a followup single, “Milagro y Desastre.” Those Recording Academy honors establish their relative wheelhouses, although clearly most listeners who’d sign up for a double header like this one are no huge respecters of genre.

More from Variety

In kicking off the evening, McLorin Salvant sang in several languages — French, Haitian Creole and Sondheim-ese foremost among them. Her most recent album, 2023’s “Mélusine,” had her singing primarily for the first time in the aforementioned non-English dialects, reflecting the roots of her family on both sides. She shared between songs how she wished she’d paid more attention as a child when the fading regional dialects of “two languages I don’t speak that I should speak” were being spoken at family gatherings growing up. But better late — and in glorious song — than never.

Cecile McLorin Salvant
Cecile McLorin Salvant

But there was plenty to latch onto for anyone for whom that material might have seemed a little esoteric. She harked back to “classic” McLorin Salvant sets with a set list that included “One Step Ahead,” a song she’d learned via Aretha, even if you wouldn’t mistake their respective arrangements; “Alfie,” an example of the reimagined Bacharach that frequently makes its way into her shows; and “Riding High,” a lesser-revived Cole Porter classic that occasioned solos from different members of her trio, including her perennial pianist, the masterful Sullivan Fortner. The latter musician could often be found between songs leaning over to his right, clearly attentive to what McLorin Salvant was saying, and it eventually became clear that — besides perhaps being perpetually delighted by his frontwoman — he was looking for clues about what was coming next, since hers are not solidly set-in-stone setlists.

cecile mclorin salvant concert review
Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner at Walt Disney Concert Hall

McLorin Salvant is not nervous to throw her own very poetic compositions in amid the numbers she draws from the fringes of the Great American Songbook. “Fog” in particular was a great one, drawing down to a typically sotto voce ending as her band dropped away to leave her as lonely as described in the lyrics. Her performance veered away from jazz more toward the classical sounds typically heard in Disney Hall as she took on a gorgeous song by the 17th century Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Also lending itself more toward formality was a selection from “The Three Penny Opera,” with the singer opening it up to a big, rowdy roar.

But the most bravura part of the set came when she pulled an audible audible and decided to close things out with a two-part sampling of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which her audiences are sometimes lucky to get one excerpt from, but not two. The soul-scorching “Being Alive,” dramatic climax enough for a show like this, was succeeded by the more comedic — and exhausting — “Getting Married Today,” a multi-character mini-opera for which McLorin Salvant was breathlessly prepared to belt or spit out all of the parts, male baritone and female soprano alike.

That would have seemed like the definition of unfollowable (and a few handfuls of patrons who apparently came just for her exit during the intermission). But McLorin Salvant established prior to the break just “how excited I am to listen to Silvana,” a compliment that was returned by Estrada in the second half when she remarked that her predecessor on stage was “probably my favorite singer, and one of the most genuine human beings I’ve ever known.” Estrada then went on to extol McLorin Salvant as the type of singer who transmogrifies into different types of mystical creatures over the course of a show, “then (is) human again.”

Estrada proved herself to be a very different type of singer in the second act — as pure of tone and spirit as McLorin Salvant was playful. There is only so much room for mischief when your original songs are devoted almost entirely to romantic obsession, as the singer has said the material from “Marchita” was. Although she spoke mostly in Spanish between numbers — the language in which she sings almost exclusively — she took one of her occasional detours into English to describe one of her originals as describing a longing that is “very, very hard and very, very lonely… I don’t know if I can stop loving this person.” (“Marchita” does translate to… withered.) But she also described an evolution from a fixation on an object of desire to “self-love.” That proclamation won some applause from the Disney Hall audience… as if Estrada should ever be encouraged to give up the haunting sense of heartache that has served her so well in her nascent but meteoric career. You wouldn’t want Estrada to abandon this mood any more than you’d want Roy Orbison to sing for only the lucky.

concert review silvana
Silvana Estrada at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Starkest at the very start, Estrada began her set with a striking, a cappella “Tonada de Ordeño” before picking up her signature accompaniment, a small, guitar-like, but four-stringed instrument called the Venezuelan cuatro, and being joined by a small cadre of musicians that included electronic keys and viola. Her bottomlessly belty voice speaks of anguish and earnestness, but amid that immaculacy, you could hear that Estrada is not just paying lip service when she says that she was also influenced by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and some of the same bluesy sirens that had an effect on McLorin Salvant.

Two left turns proved to be highlights of Estrada’s set. She turned to English-language material just once, for a somewhat faithful but jazzed-up cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” that brought her whole band into the pop oldie’s formerly a cappella scheme. And, as everyone on hand might have hoped, she brought McLorin Salvant back onto the stage. The two powerhouses clasped hands for part of their performance together as they dueted on “Gracias a la Vida,” a song that was a staple of the catalog of Mercedes Sosa, the great 20th-century Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. (It’s a song Kacey Musgraves also recorded on her next-to-latest album.) Estrada took the lower part and let McLorin Salvant go high, though clearly either singer could master any part of any harmony. The lovefest extended offstage, with an audience giving thanks for them saying gracias.

Cecile McLorin Salvant and Silvana Estrada at Walt Disney Concert Hall review
Cecile McLorin Salvant and Silvana Estrada at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.