Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Evening With Renee Fleming

The Portland Symphony Orchestra's benefit concert: "An Evening With Renee Fleming" turned into a total love fest at Portland's Merrill Auditorium tonight. In fact, it surpassed my wildest dreams (mostly).

Under Music Director Robert Moody, the concert began with Richard Strauss's gorgeous "Rosenkavalier Suite." Some of the opera's most beautiful moments - with its smile inducing waltzes, and breathtaking melodies - are honed into a 25 minute rhapsodic version of Der Rosenkavalier" - (for people who don't want to be bothered by the singing). The opening phrase gave me pause for concern and things (I thought) were getting off to a shaky start. Within about two minutes, however, the orchestra settled down and by the middle section of the suite, magic began happening, and by the first "Tempo di Valse" one could not have desired a more lush, rich and often times nuanced sound than what was coming from the stage. It truly was magical and ended with Strauss's particular brand of insane gorgeousness. It was fun, also, to see Maestro Moody, half-waltzing away on the podium, and his groove was infectious!

Then La Fleming appeared - a vision in an Angel Sanchez gown, somewhere between beige/champagne and rose, with an enormous stole that would be used to great effect throughout the Strauss.

Often used to hearing her primarily through recordings -and having heard her numerous times, one needs to be reminded that Fleming's is not a huge voice and adjustments to listening must sometimes be made. While the orchestra seemed to have toned it down, Frühling was nonetheless difficult to hear, and several phrases seemed to simply disappear. Things improved in September, but not entirely. By Beim Schlafengehen, however, all kinks seemed to be worked out and Fleming and the orchestra hit a stride they'd remain on for the rest of the night. The song was nothing short of glorious, Concertmaster Charles Dimmick's solo introducing one of Strauss's most beautiful phrases in dramatic fashion, before being picked up by Miss Fleming whose voice handled with great subtlety the ascending passing tones to positively thrilling effect - it was, literally, breathtaking. "Im Abendrot" continued in this vein, Fleming even creating magic by standing rapturously still during that amazing postlude. People seemed incapable of refraining from applause during each number, but the ovation that went up following "Abendrot" was simply enormous. The Four Last songs were followed by an exquisite reading of "Morgen" that had the house erupting after Miss Fleming's best singing of the night to this point.

Following intermission, and grabbing a microphone, the diva had me just a touch worried about the second half, joking about her change of gown ("I gotta keep your interest ...,") etc., but I realized I just needed to calm myself down. She spoke about this, her first trip to Maine and the things (like this great orchestra) that completely bowled her over. She then introduced John Kander's beautiful "A Letter from Sullivan Ballou." Fleming's reading of this piece (which she created) was tear inducing and by its end was accompanied by stifled sniffles from all 'round the house.

Moody and the band launched into a deliriously delicious rendition of Richard Rogers grand "Carousel Waltz" which, like the Rosenkavelier Suite, took a moment or two to get going but, bar-by-bar, gained in intensity and caused a minor roar during the last chords. I realized, once again, how lucky we are to live in town this small with an orchestra this good. It's amazing. Seriously.

Miss Fleming returned for my biggest surprise of the night: the piece I looked least forward to, titled simply "Medley" - arranged by Dave Grusin & Lee Ritenour (two musicians I love by the way). It turned out to be two of my favorite American songs "The River is Wide" (Waly Waly) and "Shenandoah" - and in their jazz-lite/classical arrangement both the orchestra (augmented by piano and a more jazz-like percussion section) and Miss Fleming had me moved to tears. Gershwin's "Summertime" showed a few more jazz leanings than is typically heard in full performances of "Porgy und Bess" but Fleming felt natural in them, (acting up a storm, by the way) and not only did no one seem to mind, we seemed to prefer it this way. At least at the time. Yes, it was that magical. Cole Porter was represented in a jazzy version of "So in love" that was both delightful and touching.

The printed concert ended with "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady," the diva and maestro requesting the audience to join in, so Fleming could sing a jazzy obbligato over the melody. In a lifetime of attending "pop" style concerts, I've never heard an entire audience - 2,000 strong - sing with this much gusto. And they (we) sounded good, causing Renee to mention this to her list of surprises. From here on in, it was standing ovations, return curtain calls and Fleming seemed genuinely surprised by the response, telling us what a blast she was having here, admitting re-thinking doing encores - and wanting to return to this hall - "but in the summer, next time."

Fleming's best singing of the night came in the first encore - a return to Strauss, with "Zueignung." It was as good as I've ever heard live or on a recording (and I've heard it a lot).

Another ovation, brought a delightful rendition of "O mio babbino, caro" . . . and the house would not let her go.

The final encore was a slightly jazzy version of "Somewhere over the rainbow" - one that makes purists cringe, but which set the house afire once again with endless bravos, wolf whistles and cheers.

As we exited, people were glowing, every face was stretched into broad smiles, (even the ushers).

They were able to announce this benefit concert was the biggest seller in Merrill Auditorium history, raising over $50,000 for the orchestra.

This truly was one of the greatest night's I've had since moving to this beautiful town, and truly a great night for the Portland Symphony.

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