Sunday, September 24, 2017

America's diva lends elegance and sparkle to ISO's Opening Night Gala concert

It's not often that a serious new work is the main feature of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's annual Opening Night Gala
Renee Fleming, known the world over, made her local debut Sunday.
concert, but so it was Sunday evening when Renee Fleming sang a three-year-old song cycle by Kevin Puts, "Letters from Georgia."

The 45-year-old composer was in attendance for the local premiere of his setting of letters by the 20th-century master painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Beforehand, he was brought onstage for a brief conversation about his composition with conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who must be credited with having achieved a heightened comfort level speaking to audiences from the stage as he begins his seventh season as ISO music director.

It was remarkable from the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert's first notes that the orchestra was in a mood to bring an extra glow to songlike music. The aura of the guest star must have been working to account for the lyrical portions of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to "Candide" having such a firm, blossoming sound. Not that the dominating peppiness of the much-loved piece was absent, but a collective, coordinated relaxation into the work's melodic richness was evident.

Moments of lyricism impelled from within fill the five-part cycle. They helped establish the atmosphere of O'Keeffe's beloved Southwest in the first song, "Taos." The composer's subtlety in broadening the texture, sometimes thinning it out to encompass paradoxically both breathlessness and deep breathing, is displayed again and again. In "Taos," the lengthened phrases of "I just feel so like expanding here — way out to the horizon" were given sufficient amplitude by the soprano soloist and from the podium.

There were many touches of humor in "Violin," when the artist confides her roughness practicing that instrument, an offhand confession underlined by scratchy solos in this performance by Zach De Pue, who was probably thinking back to the grin-and-scratch directive under which he performed as a five- and six-year-old with the family band.

When putting some anxiety into his music, Puts shows restraint. There's a large, swelling sound from the soloist that Fleming handled smoothly at the start of "Ache," the third movement. And, without shifting the mood, dialing back the accompaniment to a piano in the second paragraph of O'Keeffe's love letter worked very well. Then the stage is set for a natural gathering of intensity as the movement reaches its climax.

"Friends," the penultimate song, is fully understated in its projection of loneliness, with brief solo passages for De Pue (this time allowed to move beyond scratching to his customary lyrical aplomb) reinforcing the feeling of isolation. The movement ends with quietly interwoven clarinets, wondrously played in this concert. "Canyon" is a finale without any obvious feeling of triumph, yet it ascends to convey the artist's seasoned acceptance of life's fragility amid the inexhaustible beauties of sky and prairie.

The ISO's fitness for the occasion was further signaled in its adept coloring of the many exciting contrasts of texture and feeling in Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino." Again, the swooning episodes were vividly rendered, making the storm-and-stress portions sound all the more invigorated.

The Verdi served to enable Fleming to rest a little after the Puts work and to change gowns. She continued to make a firm impression in three selections from other Italian opera composers: Arrigo Boito, Giacomo Puccini, and Ruggero Leoncavallo.

The distracted mental state of Marguerite in "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" from "Mefistofele" was precisely projected, as the aria showed off the expressive weight of Fleming's low register. "O mio babbino caro" from "Gianni Schicchi" brought out an amazingly girlish sound from the 58-year-old soloist, ending with a marvelously held "pieta." After a picturesque rendition of Leoncavallo's "Mattinata," it was time for some encores.

Fleming was generous in response to the tumultuous ovation. The Song to the Moon from Dvorak's "Rusalka" was wistful and crystalline, and "I Could Have Danced All Night" paid a forward tribute to Fleming's Broadway debut next year, with the soloist enveloping the hall in extra charm as she invited an audience singalong.

But the biggest pleasant surprise of the evening was her imaginative take on Gershwin's "Summertime," with some variation on the original line quite appropriate to the idiom. Her phrasing was exquisite, especially near the end, when I detected from Urbanski's body language that he was as blown away by her performance as I was.