MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle Symphony’s Captivating Season Opener with Renée Fleming

sso-opening

Seattle Symphony opening night, with conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and soprano Renée Fleming

On Saturday, Seattle Symphony kicked off its new season with special guest Renée Fleming. Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta was on the podium, filling in for Music Director Ludovic Morlot (who was prevented by a leg injury from opening his seventh — and second-to-last — season helming the SSO).

Such affairs are often little more than a lightweight, pleasant upbeat to the season proper. But last night’s performance proved captivating throughout and contained several genuinely memorable moments.

Both halves of the program kept Fleming at the center of attention. The beloved soprano — who sang the National Anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl that brought the Seahawks victory — was in very fine voice indeed. To showcase different aspects of her artistry, she offered an unusual mixture that ranged from mid-century Samuel Barber to arrangements of songs by Björk and some little-known Italian gems from the late 19th century.

The Barber and Björk selections are paired on Fleming’s Distant Light album as well, released at the beginning of this year. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by itself became a compendium of Fleming at her most expressive: full tonal support, lush brushstrokes for sustained notes, and emotionally resonant phrasing were in generous supply, together with sensitivity to the nuances of James Agee’s text.

Drawing on all this, Fleming was able to shape the touching flashes of insight from a childhood recalled. Instead of the more comforting, lulling vision of bittersweet nostalgia for a vanished America, her account made it clear that this is a rare musical portrait of  innocence dissected — an innocence that, as the musical element reinforces, can only be ephemeral.

Fleming followed this with a foray into a pair of songs by  Björk, the adventurous, fantastically original Icelandic singer and songwriter.  She sang “Virus” (from Biophilia) and “All Is Full of Love” (from Homogenic), creating a rapturous glow in the second. But even using a mic (though from what I could tell, there was no instrumental amplification), her middle voice occasionally become drowned by the rather gentle ambient orchestration.

The concert’s second half went completely Italian. Fleming gave charming introductions to the fare, which featured sun-dappled lyricism for Licinio Refice’s Ombra di nube (from her Guilty Pleasures album) and Tosti’s delectable Aprile, as well as the swooning fatalism of the famous avalanche aria from Catalani’s La Wally (an operatic death teasingly described by the soprano).

The highlight here was Fleming’s full-throttle version of “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” from Arrigo Boïto’s Mefistofele. She made the misfortunate Margherita’s roller-coaster ride of a mad scene stunningly vivid and perturbing, peppered with featherweight trills that sounded downright eerie in the context, all the more so for their technical finesse.

Leslie Chihuly (in her final season chairing SSO’s Board of Directors) announced the lineup of seven (!) new musician appointments with the SSO:  Demarre McGill (returning as principal flute), John DiCesare (principal tuba), Emil Khudyev (associate principal clarinet), Andy Liang (second violin section), Danielle Kuhlmann (fourth horn), Christopher Stingle (second trumpet), and Michael Myers (fourth/utility trumpet).

All except McGill were able to participate in this concert, and there was a palpable sense of rejuvenating energy.  Having profiled this talented young conductor for Musical America a year ago, I wasn’t at all surprised by how splendidly Pablo Rus Broseta acquitted himself of this high-stakes assignment.

Framing each half of the concert with a substantial overture — Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal and Verdi’s to La forza del destino — Rus Broseta showed a remarkable command of small details that make big differences, as in his calibration of the brass balance in the Verdi. It had such bite, I felt a sudden urge to see the entire opera, one of Verdi’s wildest creations.

Rus Broseta has a disciplined mind — tempered by his Modernist training — and never settles for the “showy” surface. And he was a sensitive partner with Fleming, allowing her to shine above all in the Barber and Boïto.

Extending the generous, positive spirit of the evening, Fleming returned for a set of three encores.  Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, featuring her lustrous high A-flat, is an example, she suggested, of perhaps the perfect universal aria. With an invitation to the audience to join her in “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, Fleming also gave a nod to one of her upcoming new ventures later this season, when she makes her Broadway debut in Carousel. And with a deeply felt “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, she acknowledged her own early years in opera.

Review by Thomas May (c)2017 – All rights reserved

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony

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