Just one night after the Season Opening Night Gala hosted by Washington National Opera, another set of patrons came together to fill the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to open the National Symphony Orchestra's season on Sunday night. In terms of funds raised, it was the most successful opening ball in the NSO's history, according to Stephen Schwarzman, Chairman of the Board of Trustees and Blackstone Group billionaire. The nature of the program required some concession to the conventions of the gala concert, with some old favorites, music that high-minded listeners would probably rather eschew.
Renée Fleming, National Symphony Orchestra Season Opening Ball Concert, September 16, 2007, photo by Scott Suchman
Now that Lang Lang and Yundi Li are old men (25 years old or almost that), China has produced another teenage prodigy, Peng Peng, who lives in New York and attends Juilliard. The choice of Liszt's first piano concerto put the young man into an unfavorable comparison with the recent stellar performances (twice in the Washington area last spring) and recording of this piece by Yundi Li. Not to take away from the remarkable achievement of someone of Peng Peng's age more or less mastering this monstrously difficult piece, but missed details stood out, in the big octaves of the opening bars, minor smudges in the piles of runs, and an inconsistency of tempo for which conductor Leonard Slatkin, embarking on his final season as music director of the NSO, compensated masterfully.
No, the best reason to have attended this concert was saved for last, the latest gala concert appearance by Renée Fleming. We have held La Fleming's feet to the fire here at Ionarts for some of her excesses, but when she sings Strauss, all is usually forgiven because the late Romantic idiom is so suited to her voice's strengths. Fleming's latest cause is the music of Erich Korngold, and she has been singing two of his arias around the world and has also recorded them on her Homage CD in 2006. As she did earlier this summer at the Proms, even wearing the same green-golden gown and wrap, she bewitched the audience with Ich ging zu ihm (download MP3 file) from Korngold's wacky but luscious opera Das Wunder der Heliane. (You can watch the video of La Fleming singing the aria at the Proms via YouTube, of course.) This aria takes place during the tense trial of Heliane, ordered by the jealous Ruler, in which she testifies that she showed the Stranger her hair and feet and then stripped naked in his cell. Far from having a fine edge, Fleming's thick voice is suited for long, sustained lines and seems to flourish and multiply in texture when challenged by a large orchestral sound. She is still able to make her voice disappear into a stunning high pianissimo, too, giving her sound a sultry, effervescent quality in this music.
Korngold, Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr seh'n, from Die Kathrin,
sung by Renée Fleming at the Proms with the BBC Orchestra, 2007
The aria from Die Kathrin (download as MP3 file) was no less well received (captured in video above at the Proms), as was the final selection, Richard Strauss's Cäcilie, which Fleming also sang memorably as an encore at her 2005 recital. Two encores were placed before us like precious jewels (sadly, not the Four Last Songs, which probably would have driven the agitated people seated next to me to distraction), a fragile, gentle reading of Strauss's Morgen and an audibly sigh-inducing O mio babbino caro by Puccini (also an encore at that 2005 recital).
Tim Smith, Fleming soars at NSO gala (Baltimore Sun, September 18)
Tim Page, NSO Pulls Some Plums From Its Gala Mixed Bag (Washington Post, September 18)
The National Symphony Orchestra really gets its fall season under way in October, with a concert pairing a world premiere by Jefferson Friedman (Sacred Heart: Explosion) with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (October 4 to 6). Soprano Measha Brueggergosman and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer will be featured as soloists.