When Barack Obama introduced Renée Fleming, as a new recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, he called her, “the people’s diva,” an apt term for her performance in this week’s Boston Celebrity Series appearance. Fleming transmits an accessible, intelligent, warm and humorous aura—and importantly, appears as a person interested in people and our ailing planet. Her enthusiastically received 2021 recording, “Voice of Nature, the Anthropocene,” with pianist-conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, which garnered the 2023 Grammy as “the best classical solo vocal album,” served well as the underpinning of this long-anticipated concert.
Celebrated pianist Inon Barnatan, widely sought as soloist, collaborator and curator for his refined and nuanced performances, including those with Fleming, joined her here. With their intelligent musicality and grace, the duo excited, charmed and perhaps even motivated a capacity Symphony Hall crowd to consider the beauty yet fragility of our world more deeply.
Without pauses, the performers animated the dozen programmed numbers (11 songs plus the Presto from Rachmaninoff’s Moments Musicaux, Opus 16, No. 4, for piano), providing a guided yet imaginative and largely wonder-filled exploration reminiscent of the recording yet with immersion beyond—with nothing-short-of-mesmerizing accompaniment with a nature film created for this project by the National Geographic Society of natural scenes from around the globe—beneath its seas, on its varied ground and above it, variably paired with the music. This event might have veered towards “way too much,” but avoided it, owing to the beauty, the natural communication between the two performers and the audience, and the musical choices and juxtapositions comprising the program. Where some portions edged towards maudlin, these seemed to self-correct. Indeed the “menu” was far-ranging.
At the evening’s outset, Pretty Bird, with both music and lyrics by Hazel Dickens, wafted soft and entrancing, lending a lyrical introduction to the experiential program. Next, the brief “Care Selve” aria from Handel’s Atalanta (HWV 35) captured the contemplative wonder of cathedral-like forests.
In Nico Muhly’s contemporary Endless Space, commissioned for the project, the text by 17th -century Thomas Traherne with revisions by Robinson Meyer, reads as preachy, given lines such as, “Whether the emergencies of the coming century arrive in the form of fires, or floods, or plagues that rise invisibly from the ground, they’re likely to become more and more extreme…even in its quietest places, the world will become newly hostile,” yet the music and the stunning film enveloped listeners without cynicism.
In Canteloube’s incantatory Baïlèro from Songs of the Auvergne, the duo reflected longing and peace and musing before transitioning to the stark yet playful sound of contemporary composer Maria Schneider’s Our Finch Feeder, which briskly yet delicately aroused. All is Full of Love by the versatile Icelandic Björk (Björk Guðmundsdóttir, b. 1965) presented optimism, which then poured into Barnatan’s splendid rendering of the Rachmaninoff Presto from his Moments Musicaux.
Howard Shore’s plaintive Twilight and Shadow instilled a magical quiet, followed by Kevin Puts’s Evening (commissioned by Fleming), which, despite the beautiful poem by Dorianne Laux, cast a sermon-like shadow.
Fleming’s connection to the project, her engagement with audience, and her senses of humor and pride, led her to note that, under the prerecorded rolling credits, was a composition by her new son-in-law, Curtis Green. And the always welcome Bacharach and David’s What the World Needs Now provided cheer.
Prior to the second portion of the concert, an accompanying prelude consisting of a recording of Jackson Browne’s Before the Deluge, as arranged by Caroline Shaw along with Fleming, Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens and Nézet-Séguin, continued the theme.
Dreamy lighting extended the mood following intermission, though without images other than the delightful performers, who gave the audience a potpourri of well-known songs, allowing applause between. These included Puccini’s O mio Babbino Caro, playfully introduced by Fleming, Faure’s gentle Au Bord de L’eau (At the Water’s Edge, opus 8, No.1), with its gentle yet complex experience of the families of seafaring men and Les Berceaux (The Cradle, Opus 23, No.1), in which the rocking is gently at home and two Edvard Grieg songs, Lauf der Welt (The Way of the World, Opus 48. No 3, which recalls early romance) plus Zur Rosenzeit (Time of Roses, Opus 48. No. 5, which evokes unrequited love)—all delivered with sweet caring yet a bit of irony. Barnatan then interpreted Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau with verve. Kern’s All the Things You Are and Lippa’s, The Diva, relaxed the crowd. As a last encore, Fleming sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah with the sentimental audience participating at the artist’s urging.
In many ways song, worded or wordless, transports and facilitates reflection, emotion and thought. While not always pitch-perfect and or ensemble-tight, this concert invariably earned audience gratitude for these two charismatic musicians, whose examination of our day provides something for us to reflect and act upon. Whether we exist in the 80th-plus year of an Anthropocene era can be argued and criticized, but Fleming and Barnatan’s inspiring concert placed us firmly in an era of Appreciation. When the project first surfaced, consensus spread widely that its tone, sense and mood avoided “preachiness” and engendered awe and wonder. And so it went in Boston.