Though she came to prominence singing movie themes in the late '70s, Maureen McGovern says her real musical education began in the early '80s as a cabaret singer.
Drifting from club to club across Manhattan, Ms. McGovern, 44, was freed of commercial pressures to sing things she didn't like. She was allowed to pursue her love for the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim and Duke Ellington. And it's only now, with her performance with the Duke Ellington Orchestra this weekend at the Meyerhoff, that she can pay tribute to the last of these influences.
"I think absolutely Duke Ellington is a national treasure," she says over the phone from her Upper West Side apartment. "Much like Gershwin, he was so far ahead of his time -- his pieces sound hip today just as they did then.
"His more playful songs are deceptively simple -- they're really very complex and harmonically wonderful. And his tonal sense was light-years ahead of anybody else."
The Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by Duke's son, Mercer, has kept the Ellington legacy alive without becoming a tired nostalgia show and will provide support for Ms. McGovern's singing. She says she hopes the Baltimore performance will be the first of many collaborations, though there is no tour or recording planned as yet.
Ms. McGovern says it's hard to pick a single period or recor from a composer as prolific as Ellington, who died in 1974, but she's especially fond of "Prelude to a Kiss," "I Got It Bad" and "Caravan." She also has planned a performance of the rarely played "On a Turquoise Cloud."
Ms. McGovern's show will be divided into two sets: a program of Ellington numbers and a set of '40s standards. She's drawn especially to the songs of the World War II years.
"Particularly the humor of that period," she says. "Here the world is hanging on the brink, but people could still be touched by listening to something. The artists of the time felt a moral obligation to uplift the public, to say we're all in this together."
She says she searches for the overlooked elements of a song. "The lyrics have to resonate somewhere in me. I try to find something wry in a melancholy song, or something sad in a happy song."
Her tenure as a cabaret singer showed her how important the work of great U.S. composers was. "These songs are too wonderful to be only heard by 100 people in a cabaret."
Luckily for Ms. McGovern, who originally had a hard time getting her record companies to listen to standards, pre-rock jazz and pop singers have seen a renaissance in the past decade or so. "I'm a baby boomer, so it's sacrilege to say, but there's a real poverty in music today. In the '60s and '70s people just pooh-poohed [the standards] -- that was lounge music, we were on to something new."
But new hasn't always meant improved. "I don't know that we'll be sitting around campfires singing rap songs in 15 or 20 years," she says. Music also has gotten excessively technological. "The last thing I want to hear when I get home from a hard day of work is mechanistic music," she says. "I want to hear passion, and that's what the music of that period was about."
Ms. McGovern says she looks to a song's emotional rather than technical qualities to inspire her phrasing. "I approach every song for what can be mined emotionally, whether it's that playfulness, or sorrow. It's important to remember that when you listen to a song it's a musical conversation. And we don't talk in regular lines when we talk. I let the song's emotions take over."
While her early hits from '70s movies were important for establishing her, she admits that "the records that went with them were pure and utter dreck." Her career has taken on new life since she's discovered the great American songbooks.
Even Ms. McGovern's detractors -- who often see her as technically impressive but emotionally unaffecting -- concede that her tone has grown warmer and her phrasing relaxed in recent shows. "She has loosened up considerably over the years and developed into a singing actress of considerable skill," Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote after the "West Side Story" medley on her last tour.
"Warts and all, I like live performances," she says. "That's why the records from the pre-rock era still hold up -- a moment was captured."
Maureen McGovern with the Duke Ellington Orchestra
When: Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28 and 29, at 8:15 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 30, at 3 p.m.
Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
Tickets: $20-$35 (box seats $45)
Call: For information, call (410) 783-8000 or (800) 442-1198