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NSO Season Opener

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
Renée Fleming, National Symphony Orchestra Season Opening Ball Concert, September 16, 2007, photo by Scott Suchman
These popular selections were well played, with warm, suave solo work from principal cellist David Hardy in Suppé's overture to Poet and Peasant and Johann Strauss's Emperor Waltz. Likewise, the oboe solos in the overture to Die Fledermaus (as if it were New Year's Eve) were handled beautifully by Rebecca Henderson, who has been seated as Acting Principal Oboist after Rudolph Vrbsky stepped down from the position (to which he was appointed in 1980) at the beginning of this season to become Assistant Principal. The noticeable improvement in sound from that section, something harped on in recent concerts, is most welcome.

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).

Other Reviews:

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 only regret about Fleming's performance was her choice of Mozart's Exsultate jubilate, paired with the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro to make a little Mozart set. The third movement, the slow-paced Tu virginum corona, was gorgeous, again showing off Fleming's legato and ultrasoft line. The first movement and the Alleluia, however, were noteworthy only for sloppy handling of the runs, with none of the accuracy or ping from more clear-voiced singers in this kind of music like Arleen Auger (to die for) or Emma Kirkby (inhuman laser) or Cecilia Bartoli (dynamo on speed and ornamentation). If only Fleming could have instead repeated the absolutely extraordinary Berg Seven Early Songs (which Ionarts admired in her 2005 recital, but only with piano) from the Proms. Once again, the damnable musical conservatism of the Washington audience has cheated us out of excellent Berg for mediocre Mozart.

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.


Akimon Azuki said...

... and while we are on YouTube- 'tis only right to check out Netrebko working the crowd on Last Night of the Proms. I know we should not leave Renee alone, but Trebbs is a total hoot in Lippen. Oh, she sang Morgen as well... certainly not as vocally well as La Fleming, but after such dancing and hotting, and with such pretty face, who cares!
It's interesting that these two now share lots of repertoire...

Anonymous said...

"but after such dancing and hotting, and with such pretty face, who cares"

Unfortunately, that seems to be the mantra these days. Who cares how they sing, as long as they look good. Sad.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for linking to that video of Nebs hamming it up at the Proms. She is so at ease, it's great.

Seriously, though, she must really have had a microphone in her tits for that performance. The sound of her voice never wavers as she wanders all over the place.

Akimon Azuki said...

There are visible mikes all over the place everywhere, so not sure about the Secret Mike... but when I listened to this on BBC broadcast, the sound did not wander much, that's true.
Having seen her live though at the Met, I would still attest that she has nice volume. It was really a kicker, hearing such a big lush voice for the first time.
And it's not only about being pretty or dancing up a storm- she just really goes for it, and it's totally right for the occasion. As opposed to Fleming, standing there and coldly spewing out the Beautifoool Voice. It's always calculated and often cheesy as hell. The Kraft of Fleming.
It's not about looks and looks only. Trebbs sounds good to me, and on stage, for all her vocal misgivings, and there are plenty, feels alive and kicking. In the right rep, she can really be dynamite.

Charles T. Downey said...

No, power is not really an issue with Netrebko, I agree. It's just that the recorded sound is so even as she moves all around.

She has sounded best to my ears in the Russian repertoire. It's too bad that she is not singing more of that instead of the bel canto stuff that she thinks is crap.

Akimon Azuki said...

It's not like she has that much choice. The Met and other big houses where she is booked for like next ten years, will continue to mount the best selling bel canto crap, Puccini and Verdi warhorses and such, and not Iolanta or other rarities. She also said that Russian music in large quantities does not suit her voice, and she probably knows best.
I would LOVE to hear Trebbs in nicely staged Rusalka, actually. That is almost possible locally, ie at Met or WNO... my other wishes- Stemme in Koenig Kandaules, Podles in Rinaldo- not so much...

Charles T. Downey said...

It's not like she has that much choice.

I think if Anna Netrebko said, "I want to sing Iolanta," there would be an opera house somewhere that would be glad to pay her to do so. La Fleming has certainly gotten some different operas onto big stages because of her name (including Rusalka). Trebs surely has the same power.

jfl said...

Netrebko is blessed with never having to think before singing. She's like Pavarotti, but hot.