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Renée Fleming’s All-American Tanglewood Opener


Renée Fleming with conductor William Eddins (Hilary Scott photo)
Renée Fleming with conductor William Eddins (Hilary Scott photo)

Tanglewood 2014 opened with Renée Fleming and the BSO in an all-American program, conducted by William Eddins and Rob Fisher.

Joseph Schwantner’s Freeflight (1989) provided an unusual, fresh, and exciting beginning to the concert and the season. Deploying discordant harmonies and unusual rhythms, the music recalls mid-20th-century film scores. There is a populism here, but also the seriousness of American classical as it bridges generic divides, and I was reminded of music by Halsey Stevens. Although only six-minutes long, the exuberance transcended that limit and provided a festive flourish to warm up the crowd.

From fanfare to meditation: reduced strings of the BSO gathered to offer Aaron Copland’s “Night Thoughts” from his Music for a Great City. In seven short minutes, it is meditative and, in its own way, very operatic. We heard an insightful interpretation.

It was also a smart introduction to the next item on the program: Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915, Op. 24 (1948) with Renée Fleming as soloist. The diva arrived on stage in a blue-grey ombré gown with such a large train that the second violins immediately retreated to leave it more room. Fleming sang in fine voice and Eddins offered good direction and balance. The tempo did feel just a touch fast to me, and, a very personal decision, I wish I had heard a good Southern accent for these words. Having once heard a singer offer just that, it is hard now not to want to hear that happy pairing of voice, accent, and music. Others may well not share my taste on this point.

The first half concluded with John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986). This four-minute work, like Schwantner’s, is a fanfare. A propulsive beat on wood blocks keeps it moving forward. The whole has the flavor of music for a noir film and it brought back the level of gripping excitement, the loud and the fast, with which the concert opened.

Following intermission, Rob Fisher took the podium for selections from American musical theatre. The orchestra gave a fine reading to Rodgers’ Overture to South Pacific, expressing the optimism and pessimism, the beauty and love (realized and thwarted) in that groundbreaking musical. Renée Fleming then returned to the stage (in a strapless red gown with smaller train, as she herself commented) for a set of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs: “The Hills are Alive” (The Sound of Music), Wonderful Guy (South Pacific, here in Bennett’s arrangement”), and “Hello, Young Lovers” (The King and I). Crowd pleasers all, each opened a window into the respective show. The last number was marked especially by Fleming’s wistfulness. Then came music by the Gershwins: the orchestra soared in the Overture to Girl Crazy (Rose’s arrangement), before turning to Gershwin (arranged by Bruce Coughlin), “Fascinating Rhythm” from Lady Be Good. Fleming shone here. “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess concluded the set with bravura.

I do not know what inspired the change of conductors at intermission. William Eddins, whom I last saw conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, acquitted himself admirably in the first half of this concert. He guided and inspired the orchestra to some excellent playing in some tricky and lesser-known music. Rob Fisher, based on his bio, would seem to be more at home in musical theatre; as a conductor he seemed more focused on tempo and ensemble, less on interpretation or phrasing. This is appropriate for the music and the works with soloist plus orchestra. Perhaps each conducted to their strengths. Or perhaps this is a compromise solution as the BSO scrambles to cover those concerts which were to be conducted by the late Frühbeck de Burgos.

Of course there were encores. Fisher and Fleming returned to the stage for Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady (with audience obbligato for the second chorus and descant soloist). Finally, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a captivating song here in a beautiful orchestral arrangement (unattributed; more’s the pity). Fleming’s nod to popular music, as she said, this was a good take on the song and made a case for more classical singers to embrace it.

Renée Fleming and Rob Fischer (Hilary Scott photo)
Renée Fleming and Rob Fischer (Hilary Scott photo)

It may take just as much skill and training to sing masterpieces of American musical theater, even though the idiom may not be the same as classical music (although as the 20th century progressed the genres cross-pollinated and it becomes more difficult to divide one from the other). Though clearly Renée Fleming has the skill and training to deliver moving performances in any idiom, the artistry of her voice was not always a happy fit with these songs. Especially in her upper register she is more operatic (unsurprisingly) and that style sits slant to the style of the music. Sound of Music is a prime example: Maria, as novitiate, is aspiring to the simplicity worthy of her religious vocation even as her exuberant personality rebels against those strictures. The music itself soars; when sung with an openness and simplicity this tension comes through in performance. Fleming’s take was more polished and refined; while lovely, in the end I found it left me wanting. Similarly, she gave “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” more poise than the guileless gushing of the song’s lyrics or the show’s character. On the other hand, “Fascinating Rhythm” was a happy pairing of vocal delivery and song. “Summertime,” drawing more on her lower and middle registers, combined a less operatic delivery (with perhaps a nod to Jessye Norman’s recored performance) with a self-consciously virtuosic and operatic use of upper register and glissandi in a coloratura manner; here the combo worked to make the song her own. Cohen’s “Hallelujah” aimed at the same amalgam but didn’t work for me; this may be exceedingly personal since I am deeply under the spell of Jeff Buckley’s rendition of this song [here] and k. d. lang’s (her Juno Awards ceremony performance of some five years ago even moreso than the track on Hymns of the 49th Parallel).

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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