Roberta Flack's love affair with music has never waned. In fact, it may be stronger than ever. A prodigy who attended Howard University at age 15, she went on to win back-to-back Record of the Year Grammy Awards for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (1973) and "Killing Me Softly with His Song" (1974), a feat since matched only by U2. Today, at age 73, Flack remains passionate about her craft and her efforts to promote music education through the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in Bronx, N.Y. She performs Jan. 26 with the CIM Orchestra at Severance Hall for the Cleveland Institute of Music benefit Roberta Flack: Set The Night to Music.
Q. You're known for your singing but you're also a classically trained pianist. Which was your first love?
A. It was always the piano. I would rehearse two or three times a week with the church choir, and when I was older I played and sang the blues in a small club. I never left classical music alone; I couldn't get enough of those beautiful melodies. I am steeped in classical music. I'm riled up just talking about it. • Let me play you some now. [She places the phone on her piano and plays Schubert's An die Musik.]
Q. What songs do you perform when you play with an orchestra?
A. The music that I perform is suited to orchestration. I try to sing songs people want to hear. "Killing Me Softly" with strings is magnificent and the audience loves it. I also do songs from my new Beatles album [Let It Be Roberta], and I put together a suite of Marvin Gaye songs because they are so profound. I did three concerts with the National Symphony [Orchestra] at the Kennedy Center and that's not chopped liver.
Q. How essential is music education for young people?
A. It's so important. When I auditioned at age 14, it was hard to get into a program, even if you had the ability. It's not about the Roberta Flack School of anything, it's about making it possible for these young people to be inspired and exposed to the beauty of music. It's about having a chance to be exposed to this wonderful music.
Q. How would you describe your singing style?
A. I love ballads and melody. I sing slow. Slow as molasses going uphill.