A Brief, Beautiful Paralysis: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Gala Celebration featuring Renee Fleming
Classical music fans in the DC/Baltimore area are so fortunate to find an embarrassment of riches in our backyard. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a world-class musical ensemble making its home in a gritty, can-do town, opened its 2012-2013 season in grand style Saturday night with a gala event featuring the orchestra backing the resplendent voice and personality of Renee Fleming, arguably the most famous opera singer in the world. (Arguably.) In planning the evening’s music, complete with opera arias, a brigade of child musicians, drummers, and dancers, and a few soft-serve musical theatre bonbons, BSO Artistic Director Dan Trahey and Conductor Marin Alsop took on an ambitious scope which could have gone disastrously wrong, but was instead brilliantly executed with panache and sublime artistry. Kudos also go out to both US Senators from the state of Maryland, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, for attending the show and continuing to support the arts.
Alsop, herself an internationally-renowned star of the classical music world, opened things with a table-setting sequence of interchanging raucous and bucolic waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, whose Romantic chromatic wanderings instantly dropped the Baltimore audience into fin du siècle Vienna. Making her debut with Maestra Alsop, Renee Fleming entered the stage and immediately ingratiated herself to the packed house by taking to the microphone, introducing her first songs by explaining how “nymphs were really big about one hundred years ago.” (Rest assured, her powerful voice was in in no need of amplification after this point.)
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s Song to the Moon, composed for his nymph-centric opera Rusalka in 1900, is a cornerstone of the operatic repertoire for soprano, and Fleming’s ravishing, honey-hued voice brought out the sultry undertones of the music, coating the audience in a sort of brief, beautiful paralysis. (I marvel at the inherent optical paradox of the opera world: an inherently “unsexy” community of primarily older, laced-up and well-moneyed patrons gathering quietly in a large gilded hall to soak in some extraordinarily sex-driven music! Scandal!) A gentleman sitting close to me, exuberantly vocal in his opinions all evening long, audibly gasped at the ending high notes of this piece, and chimed in with “Well they can’t go wrong with that!” at the closing notes of Puccini’s O mio babbino caro, arguably the most famous piece of music written for the operatic stage. Though purists may scoff, seeing the English translations projected on a screen above the stage was helpful for non-polyglots like myself; Puccini’s lines (actually, Giovacchino Forzano’s)“I am pining! I am tortured! Oh God, I could die!” could conceivably come from an angst-ridden teenager’s journal.
As a musician and actor, I admit that although the music of opera is often enchanting and innovative (Wozzeck is the shiz), I’ve found what passes for acting in opera can often be close to unbearable. Though I’m told this is changing to some degree, an emphasis on developing “the voice” at all costs over years of training tends to encourage young singers to neglect even rudimentary training in theatrical realism. Yet without the benefit of sets, costumes, or other actors, Fleming succeeded marvelously in distilling a few elements of character and dramatic conflict down to a pull of her scarf here, a sideward glance there. If drama is a distillation of life, the performance of art song must be a distillation of an entire dramatic scene lasting mere minutes, and apart from her luxurious voice, Fleming’s dramatic economy was a marvel to watch.
A handful of well-produced videos interspersed between Fleming’s singing began by highlighting the BSO Academy, an innovative, week-long “band camp for grownups” which seems to be that rare thing in the classical music world: a well-structured and universally-embraced idea which has succeeded in bridging a gap to the general public. The enthusiasm of both the orchestra player-mentors and the participants was apparent. Perhaps even more daring, however, was the integration of the BSO’s OrchKids program, which pulls students from inner-city schools, gets them playing instruments, and provides the hopefully life-changing experience of a world-famous conductor expecting great things. During an OrchKids promo video, dozens of kids from the program were covertly shuffled onstage, and a performance of a specially commissioned work (by gifted amateur composer George Bogatko) combining the BSO with genuinely starstruck kids ensued, prominently featuring some eye-“popping” (quite literally) dance moves from a pipsqueak duo almost certainly presenting the majority of the crowd with their first look at “popping.”
Fleming rounded out the evening with three musical theatre chestnuts from Rodgers & Hammerstein, whose delicious, familiar melodies proved a surprisingly small leap from the opera world. A child’s choir (pulled from OrchKids, presumably) appeared in the rafters to back up Fleming’s urgent, affecting soprano in “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and Fleming concluded the show with a sumptuous, harmonically adventurous arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in which she finally let a bit of her jazz background roam free.
What a terrific way to launch what promises to be a terrific season for the BSO, and #DCarts fans don’t have to travel further than the gorgeous environs of Strathmore in Bethesda to take part. Also, I hear there’s a
fairly dashing mildly sheepish currently #humblebragging musicologist and public speaker currently preparing a Saturday night pre-concert lecture series, a rather shameless fellow who already has a bit of experience with these sorts of things. He’d love your presence, and so would the BSO, I’m quite sure.
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