CSO Great Vocalists Wrap-Up

Date:  May 3, 1999

Judging by the all-star line up Henry Fogel and company manage to bring together each year for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Great Vocalists Series, you'd think that Chicago audiences were the ultimate connoisseurs of the vocal art.  However, if you actually came to one of the concerts, you'd notice that the high quality on stage hardly matches the lousy behavior in the audience.  It is a most taxing effort to ignore all the candy unwrapping, chatting, and hacking going on in the audience.  However, the fabulous singing makes putting up with these boors worth it.

This season began on November 15, 1998, with an evening of Handel arias and French and American songs from Sam Ramey and Warren Jones.  The pair, both dressed to the nines, delivered the entire concert with great feeling and musical style.  Ramey showed everything from coloratura flash (Handel) to a wickedly sly sense of humor (Cole Porter), all the while using that notoriously gorgeous voice to great effect.  The traditional Ramey devil portrayal popped up in Saint-Saën's "Danse macabre" and arias from Gounod and Boito's settings of the Faust story.What a charming face this man gives evil!  Jones, playing from memory, was a faithful partner throughout, proving his place as one of the greatest accompanists we've got with us today.  I'm so glad I got to experience so much of Ramey this season: this recital, a concert at Northwestern by Ramey, Larmore, Leech, and Gustafson, the Lyric Mefistofele, and two Met Susannahs.  I can never get enough!

Next up, on January 17, 1999, was Robert Holl and Daniel Barenboim in Schubert's Winterreise.  Holl presented a very memorable vocal interpretation of the piece, but the physicalization of his vocal ideas was very wanting.  Singing like a god and moving like a dead lumberjack just will not do for this piece.  It was quite sad, as his vocal ideas were really brilliant:  each song received a very individual interpretation, making the twenty-four songs of the cycle whiz by in no time at all.  Barenboim offered terrific accompaniment, even if he did dominate Holl in some of the more boisterous songs.  However, the pianists' playing of the more stormy moments was truly inspired and having a conductor at the keyboard really unifies the piece.  The Chicago audience was strangely well-behaved that afternoon.

January 24, 1999, marked Renée Fleming's most recent appearance on the Chicago scene.  Already beloved for (among other triumphs) her Lyric Marguerites and Contessas, Fleming entered to the sound of a standing ovation and left to an even bigger one.  She is truly Chicago's darling, and my own.  The program was an interesting one, pairing grim settings of Goethe's women in the first half with the sensuous pleasures of Debussy and Strauss in the second half.  No qualms were to be had with the singing:  the program was uniformly fabulous.  However, Fleming's sense of seriousness and pain in the Goethe pieces (Schubert, Glinka, Liszt, Wolf) was wanting.  Her depression is one of pouty pain, rather than true loss (Margeurite) or homelessness (Mignon).  The first half of the program, then, was overwhelmingly depressing.  Watching Fleming was more like watching a friend suffer through a breakup than watching true tragedy.  Further, the voice didn't really seem to warm up until a few songs into the recital, when it began to work its traditional magic.  The second half was much more pleasing, offering Fleming the chance to really offer the highest degree of aural pleasure she can.  She shimmered her way through the Debussy Ariettes oubliées and then poured forth pure gold in a varied set of Strauss songs, including her favorite, "Cäcile," and mine, "Mörgen."  Encores ranged from Puccini (a glowing "Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta," much more Italianate than the reading on The Beautiful Voice) to Ricky Ian Gordon, Dvorak (her famous "Song to the Moon") to Gershwin.  Unfortunately, a wincing, silly Stephen Blier replaced the "indisposed" James Levine.  A very long afternoon spent in the presence of one of my favorites--not to be forgotten, but still not without problems.

Warren Jones rolled back into town on March 7, 1999, this time accompanying Denyce Graves.  Graves sang a most frustrating program, in thrilling form for some of the recital and phoning it in for the rest.  Songs of Bizet, Saint-Saëns, and de Falla were brilliant; songs of Puccini and Brahms were well-sung, but devoid of interpretation (from Graves--Jones was another story, playing his heart out and using that unparalleled mind to the best of its ability).  It's a shame, because everything really sounded so good.  Her spirituals came off as very rehearsed and not very, well, spiritual.  However, a limpid "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" and a blistering "Danse macabre" (how fascinating to hear both Graves and Ramey sing this in one year!) more than made up for the weaknesses of the afternoon.  I wish this singer would find a way to sing at her highest level throughout a whole recital--if she did, she would become a true artist.

With Martin Katz in tow, Kathleen Battle arrived on April 18, 1999.  Never have I seen a crowd so pleased by so little.  There is simply nothing left in this woman's voice.  Sure, it's still beautiful, she can still trill, and she still looks marvelous in red velvet.  However, volume is a completely different matter: sure, she was never Birgit Nilsson, but now she makes Heidi Grant Murphy look like Leonie Rysanek!  A pair of arias from Handel's Theodora went so poorly that I was worried she'd cancel the rest of the afternoon.  However, Miss Battle pushed ahead, offering depressingly routine singing of a few Mozart ditties.  Just when I was ready to give up, the Strauss arrived:  all of a sudden, here was an artist!!  Huzzah!  Where a voiceless canary had stood before, suddenly a real singer appeared.  Sounding as fresh as ever, she delivered beautiful readings of Strauss' Madchenblümen, followed by (as an encore) "Ständchen."  The second half went similarly.  Except for an over-the-top "O luce di quest'anima" which the audience applauded as if Patti had risen from the grave, Battle was back at rock bottom (poor Fauré...) until she reached her encores.  Villa-Lobos' "Melodia sentimental," Mozart's "Allelujah," and a handful of spirituals were all deeply felt and fabulously sung.  Battle seemed to me like a little girl who got older but never grew up:  her perkissimo speaking voice, cutsie mannerisms, and artistic flops (arm motions do not an interpretation make) all suggested that she has no clue what she was doing.  When she was on, boy was she on; when she was off, it was pathetic.  Martin Katz did a nice job keeping up with her, even putting up with an obnoxious Battle putting on the brakes at the beginning of "Mandoline."  Battle's voice is a beautiful one (perfect for the recording studio, even now), but I question her value as a recital artist.

This season's lineup ended with the brooding, sexy Dmitri Hvorostovsky on May 2, 1999.  With perennial partner (Why, Mitri, why?  You can do so much better!) Mikhail Arkadiev at the keyboard, Hvorostovsky presented the music of Glinka and Sviridov with Mahler in between.  Hvorostovsky could have taught Fleming a lesson in the presentation of suffering:  while Fleming was pouting over relationship troubles, Hvorostovsky was living through hell.  Few artists portray the Russian sentiment as well as this man:  I felt like I was in the streets of St. Petersburg and the tundra of Siberia right beside him.  His word-painting skills as superb in Russian, dwarfing his merely capable use of the German.  As I had expected, the Mahler was the least successful item on the program.  While his Kindertötenlieder were moving and well-sung, they were still a far cry from the truly great interpreters of this set.  The Glinka was of rare beauty and highly fascinating, awaking an interest for me in this composer's vocal chamber music.  The Sviridov, written in 1995 as if the composer had lived in a cave for the last 100 years, was beautiful and evocative, if disturbingly anachronistic.  It is clear that this composer wrote this cycle for Hvorostovsky's voice:  everything fit together marvelously.  The voice itself, as I have written many times, is one of the most beautiful instruments before the public today.  Hvorostovsky proved this again with his two encores:  a finely spun reading of Don Giovanni's "Deh vieni alla finestra" and an unbelievably perfect "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" that completely floored me:  who ever heard a Russian who sang the Italian repertoire so authentically?  Unbelievable, this man.  I wish I could say the same for Arkadiev, who blew a fair amount of notes and had his nose in the music the whole concert.  The audience was at its worst for the season, applauding between numbers (even the Mahler!!!) after the singer and pianist gestured to the audience to refrain.  Even after a CSO employee made a formal announcement, the crowd couldn't resist applauding after one of the more perfectly done Sviridov songs.  This behavior was embarrassing, but worth ignoring when such singing is the reward.  I look forward to many more years of triumphs from this great man!

Next season looks to be at least 5/6 superb, featuring Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Placido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Matthias Goerne, and Sylvia McNair.  I'm so glad I'm staying in Chicago:  finally hearing Horne will be one of the greatest afternoons of my life!!  Until then....

Doug the Liederlover

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