It happened during My Funny Valentine, the moment when Seal and the Florida Orchestra became one.
The British pop and soul singer was admiring the orchestra’s rendition of the Rodgers and Hart standard when principal trumpet Robert Smith stood for a doleful back-alley solo. Slowly toward the spotlight slinked Seal, first steps away, then just arm’s length, lifting his mic until it was inches from Smith’s bell. The singer arched his back in a brief moment of ecstasy as solo wailed to a close.
“What a great orchestra,” said the singer, who headlined the orchestra’s annual gala on Saturday at an all but sold-out Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. “It’s like being behind the wheel of a hybrid of the most beautiful Rolls Royce and a Ferrari. You say go and they give you back tenfold.”
The four-time Grammy winner was the latest mononymous pop star to join the orchestra’s largest annual fundraiser, following one of his heroes, Sting, last season.
“Everyone looks so pretty and so well tonight,” said Seal, wearing loose a loose, casual black top and pants. “Had I known, I would have worn something a bit more sparkly. I didn’t know I was going to be in such great company.”
He was an offbeat choice for the gala, one that only truly made sense in the wake of his Great American Songbook album Standards. It made for, in many respects, a classic pops concert, rife with familiar finger-snappers like Luck Be a Lady, I’ve Got You Under My Skin and They Can’t Take That Away From Me.
Highlights: The stirring, starlit romance and wall-of-sound percussion of Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand); the delicate flutes pirouetting around the cinematic It Was a Very Good Year; and a 007-like Smith solo on a noirish I Put a Spell On You.
Harder to embrace, on the other hand, was the orchestra’s absence when Seal delved into his own back catalog. For a good chunk in the middle of the set, conductor Michael Francis left the stage and the orchestra largely sat things out as Seal played the sort of show his fans are used to seeing. Not entirely -- the orchestration was lush and lovely on Kiss From a Rose, which saw a couple of enthusiastic instrumentalists swaying and singing along -- but by and large, the home team just sat things out while Seal and the band played like rock stars.
The ironic thing is, this was the section that enlivened the gala the most. Multiple times, Seal hopped off stage and meandered through the crowd, hugging fans and willing them to their feet. The ethereal Prayer for the Dying was spellbinding, Seal’s delayed vocals echoing through the house. Same with Killer and covers of Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle, David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel and Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up (which did feature a fierce battery of horns and saxes).
To be fair, it would’ve been nigh-impossible to chart out fresh arrangements for each of these songs and still have this section feel so fresh and in-the-moment. As Seal clambered through the crowd, leading fans on a euphoric, barn-burning sing-along of Crazy, what else could Francis have done but stand sidestage and clap with joy?
Still, imagine how Seal and the Florida Orchestra might’ve sounded if they’d done with every song what they did with Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, which Seal called his favorite song of all time. As the strings swept the house off its feet, the singer, enraptured, faced the crowd and traced a finger down his cheek.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said afterward, “please put your hands together for the Florida Orchestra.”
The audience cheered them both. For this night only, they were one.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.