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Sankt Ludwig Frau

Wasn't it enough, you ask, to see La Fleming at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night? (I was there with fellow Ionarts critic Jens F. Laurson, whose review is forthcoming. For now, see the substantial review [The Flaws That Refresh: A Risk-Taking Renee Fleming, February 17] by Philip Kennicott for the Washington Post.) Apparently I needed to hear another diva's recital. Soprano Christine Brewer recently sang the role of Isolde in the new Tristan with video images by Bill Viola, premiered in a semi-staged version with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (see post from December 23, 2004), and she sang for the highly praised recording of William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience last year. She was here in Washington Wednesday night, to perform in the latest installment of the Shenson Chamber Music Concert series at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Even many Washingtonians are unaware that there is a small auditorium on the museum's fifth floor, where there are free concerts, films, and other events.

Christine BrewerHer program's first half combined Richard Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder with a set of four substantial Richard Strauss songs. These songs are the optimal vehicle for Ms. Brewer's rich, warm tone. This is a beautiful, full voice with considerable power and refinement. That mellowness was on display in my favorite of the Wesendonck-Lieder, the mysterious Im Treibhaus, cluttered with seconds. Ms. Brewer's accompanist, Craig Rutenberg, contributed superb playing to this recital, notably in the Strauss Wiegenlied (op. 41, no. 1), with its perpetual motion of harplike arpeggiation.

If the first half was perhaps a little somber, the lighter tone of the remaining program was made clear when Ms. Brewer appeared after the intermission, not in her black velvet gown with white collar and cuffs, but in black pants and shirt, with a billowing black and gold blouse. "I thought velvet was OK for February," she announced. The day's unseasonably warm weather also convinced accompanist Craig Rutenberg to return without his tailed jacket. "You can loosen your ties," Ms. Brewer advised the audience. The less serious content of the second half began with Benjamin Britten's Cabaret Songs, on poems by W. H. Auden (although he was not credited in the program). In these songs Ms. Brewer displayed her playful side (wolf-whistling in Calypso, for example), but it was Mr. Rutenberg who seemed to be having almost too much fun at the piano, with the driving locomotive sounds in Calypso, the catchy cha-cha rhythms in Tell Me the Truth about Love, and the sad tango of Auden's famous lament Funeral Blues.

The Britten was followed by three Harold Arlen songs (who is having an important anniversary this year, the Harold Arlen Centennial). These three songs from Saint Louis Woman (words by Johnny Mercer) are something of a signature piece for Ms. Brewer, who is a native of Saint Louis, and she made a recital recording by the same title. I did not need to be reminded of the fact that Harold Arlen wrote great song: Happy Anniversary, Harold! Ms. Brewer explained her last set of four apparently random songs as her "Flagstad favorites." They are, in fact, four songs she found on old programs, given to her by a voice teacher, from one of Kirsten Flagstad's American recitals:

  • Now like a Lantern (Alice Raphael/A. Walter Kramer)
  • Rain Has Fallen (James Joyce/Samuel Barber)
  • Sea Moods (Kenneth G. Benham/Mildred Lund Tyson)
  • Night (Charles Hanson Towne/Edwin MacArthur)
This was an interesting music-historical exercise, but the only song that I found particularly interesting was the one I already knew, the Barber. (Another enthusiast of American song, Thomas Hampson, recently sang this song as part of a Barber set at the Library of Congress.) This is not to say that Ms. Brewer's performance was not thrilling, especially as she soared powerfully in the final song. A single encore was something of a letdown. I would rather have heard some more Strauss instead of Lili's pretty little song Mira from Carnival. Anything from either of her upcoming opera appearances would have been welcome to my ears: she will be Queen Elizabeth I in Britten's Gloriana with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in June and Ellen Orford in Britten's Peter Grimes with the Santa Fe Opera in July and August.

Upcoming events at the National Museum of Women in the Arts that are on my cultural schedule include a screening of Agnès Varda's Jacquot de Nantes (a tribute to her husband, film director Jacques Demy, another member of the Nouvelle Vague), introduced by Varda herself (this Friday, February 18), and the next event in their concert series, a recital by Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova (May 4, at 7:30 pm).

See also Daniel Ginsberg, Christine Brewer, A Superior Soprano (Washington Post, February 18).

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