Symbols of grace at Kennedy Center

Recital: Renee Fleming and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet showed musical charm.

Classical Music

November 06, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The word "diva" gets tossed around so loosely that it's startling - and richly satisfying - to be in the presence of a real one.

Renee Fleming earned her divahood through a combination of a creamy soprano voice, the technical resources to make the most of it and superb musical instincts. Add a winning personality, good looks and the ability to hold thousands of listeners in the palm of her hand, and you're talking diva with a capital D.

The crowd at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday had a hard time letting Fleming go; no less than five encores would do.

The formal part of the recital, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society and the Vocal Arts Society, might be dismissed by the cynically inclined as a transparent, pop-music-style record promotion. True, the soprano and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet offered a large sampling of material included on their fairly recent Decca release, Night Songs.

But it's a release well worth pushing, and if this event ends up selling more copies during these depressed times for the classical music recording business, good for Fleming and Thibaudet.

The project started a few years ago when the singer suggested an album devoted to art songs about the moon; the subject eventually broadened and became a study of the night, represented by music and poetry from the turn of the 20th century. This is very fertile ground. Imagery of the night - its beauty, danger and symbolism - abounds in the songs of Faure, Debussy, Strauss, Rachmaninoff and Joseph Marx, all of whom are featured on the recording.

For this appearance, Fleming chose a representative portion of that disc program, and then made room for piano solos on each half of the recital; after all, Thibaudet is quite a star in his own right.

In the opening group of extravagantly romantic Marx songs, Fleming sounded a little pushed; high notes did not come effortlessly. But there was a richness in the phrasing that recalled, here and there, the styling of Leontyne Price, who memorably used her incomparable tone (and super-sized diva status) to champion these undervalued songs.

Fleming's flair for Strauss is well-documented. It shone with particular radiance in the long-breathed phrases and emotion of Ruhe, meine Seele. Has the last verse: "These are overwhelming times; heart and brain are sorely tried," ever been more relevant?

A good deal of this soprano's appeal could be explained by what she did with the first of Debussy's subtly erotic Chansons de Bilitis; the voice took on a delicate glow that turned deliciously crimson in the last, blushing line. Here was a singer connecting with the melody and Pierre Louys' words, conjuring palpable scenes of exotic beauty and fantasy.

If Rachmaninoff had composed only songs, he still would rank among the greats. His vocal writing is full of exquisite arches, supported by piano parts alive with colorful nuances and harmonic imagination. The plaintive quality of these songs inspired an extra sympathy from Fleming. Again, she had some trouble controlling the very top of her voice (as in the highest reach of How fair this spot), but that proved minor in light of so much imaginative phrasing.

Throughout, Thibaudet's playing was a model of technical grace and interpretive partnership. On his own, he charged into Liszt's B minor Ballade with strength, if not enough variety of tone and expression; his accounts of Debussy's Clair de lune and Feux d'artifice were charming and idiomatic.

In the encores, which added up to mini-recital by themselves, the soprano and pianist hit a virtuoso peak in Rachmaninoff's thunderous Spring Waters and had great fun with Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean a Thing. Fleming even tried out some fanciful scat singing.

A poignant Marietta's Lied from Korngold's Die tote Statdt, dedicated to those lost on Sept. 11; a rapt Vilja from Lehar's The Merry Widow; and a gutsy, soaring Over the Rainbow also revealed the surprising breadth of Fleming's diva dimensions.

Emotional performance

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society responded to the horror and uncertainty of our times with a program that provided food for thought and solace.

Music director Tom Hall, marking the start of his 20th season with the ensemble, had the choristers line the sides of Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium Sunday. They surrounded the packed house with the soothing, hopeful sounds of Randall Thompson's a cappella Alleluia. This was followed by a moment of silence and, in a row ahead of me, some soft sobbing. Life may be getting back to normal, but the pain of Sept. 11 clearly is far from healed.

Once arranged on stage behind the orchestra, the chorus offered Brahms' elegiac Nanie in a performance notable for the clarity of articulation and smoothness of the vocal blend. (The sopranos sounded especially sweet and cohesive). Hall tapped the music's understated eloquence and had the orchestra responding as sensitively as the singers.

Haydn's Mass in Time of War, one of his most compelling sacred works, has a determined cheerfulness and optimistic faith. But military-style interjections from the brass and ominous rumblings from the timpani underscore the pleas of "Grant us peace" in the closing Agnus Dei.

Hall's conducting was an inspired combination of dramatic momentum, lyrical reflection and scholarship; the chorus used 18th-century Austrian pronunciation of the Latin text.

The ensemble was flexible, disciplined, and alert to dynamic and emotional shifts. The contrasting moods in the Credo were superbly expressed. The solo quartet - soprano Sharon Baker, mezzo Monica Reinagel, tenor Alan Bennett, bass James Weaver - did elegant work. Gita Ladd's cello solo in Gloria was delivered in warm, compelling phrases.

The concert fully lived up to the title Hall gave it - "Musical Inspiration in a Troubled Time."

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