Review: Renee Fleming, from Strauss to Leonard Cohen |

Review: Renee Fleming, from Strauss to Leonard Cohen

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Well, that’s not something we hear every Sunday during the Aspen Music Festival.

The Festival Orchestra’s first program this year featured soprano Renee Fleming, who entranced a full house at the Benedict Music Tent with a gorgeously sung and soulfully expressed traversal of Richard Strauss’ autumnal “Four Last Songs.” Then, in the second half, she ended a set of love songs with a Spanish pop song of 1939 and finished the program with three songs from “The King and I,” and her three encores included “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s quiet and heartfelt blend of folk-rock and gospel music.

Mostly, the beauty of this music dodged waves of showers that occasionally pelted the tent like a drum. Lawn sitters for the most part fled, but the few who stuck it out experienced a wide range of music, well-rendered.

The Festival Orchestra, together for less than a week, lavished lush and vibrant work under conductor Robert Spano on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” a work that also reflects one of the themes of this year’s festival program — dance.

The program opened with a colorful, if sometimes awkwardly shifting, performance of “Dreamwaltzes,” Steven Stucky’s 1986 look back at the iconic dance from a 20th-century perspective. It was fitting to feature a Stucky piece on the first Sunday concert of the season. For years a much-loved member of the festival’s faculty, he died in February of brain cancer.

Stucky’s nervous waltz contrasted nicely with the serenity of Strauss’ songs. Spano drew supple playing from the initial scene-setting of the first song, “Fruhling” (“Spring”), and caught a wistfulness in the second, “September.” Fleming achieved a youthful tone in the first and an appropriate tinge of sadness in the second.

The last two songs upped the ante further. The soprano tugged at the heart with the sweet curlicue phrases of “Beim Schlafengehen” (“Before Sleeping”) and, without indulging in sentiment, made the final song, “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”), a quiet paean to resignation and noble acceptance of death.

Notable among many wonderful contributions from the orchestra were concert master Robert Chen’s tastefully spun violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehen,” David Zirbel’s subtly placed reiteration of the theme in “September” and the fluttering piccolos at the very end.

The first two second-half songs are more closely associated with tenors — Stefano Donaudy’s “O del Mio Amato Ben,” a favorite of Luciano Pavarotti’s, and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata,” made popular by Enrico Caruso, but Fleming rendered them with poise and lush tone. Manuel Ponce’s “Estrellita” livened things up a bit, the set finishing with “La Morena de Mi Copla,” a 1939 pasodoble that was once the most popular song in Spain.

If Fleming’s Spanish flair came off a bit cooler than she might have wanted, her lifelong affinity to jazz came through movingly in George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the first encore. Stretching the phrases, sliding tastefully to high notes and low, she brought richness of detail to Clara’s lullaby from “Porgy and Bess.”

Once a student herself at this festival back in the 1980s, Fleming encouraged all the singers in the audience to sing alone with one refrain of Frederick Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night,” her second encore. For a quieter finale, she displayed a remarkable low range (with the aid of a microphone) to make “Hallelujah” into a heart-tugger despite it having been written for the baritone range of its composer, Cohen.

Not to miss this week

Violinists Daniel Hope and Augustin Hadelich each have compelling programs in Harris Hall. Today, faculty artists join Hope for a trio version of “Histoire du Soldat,” by Igor Stravinsky, and a septet version of “Metamorphosen,” by Strauss. On Thursday, Hadelich takes the stage alone for works by Niccolo Paganini, Johann Sebastian Bach and Eugene Ysaye. On Wednesday, Joaquin Valdepenas joins the Takacs Quartet in Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, and Friday, the irrepressible Nicholas McGegan leads the Chamber Orchestra in the tent through a concerto for flute with Emmanuel Pahud and for violin with Simone Porter.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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