Perfect Pitch: Songs of Nostalgia

by patrickmccoy

REVIEW:  Soprano Renée Fleming takes her audience on a journey in song through her past.

By Patrick D. McCoy

Soprano Renée Fleming was joined by pianist Olga Kern in recital at The Kennedy Center. (Photo by Timothy White)

It is perhaps every artist’s aspiration to be adored by their audiences, which is an accomplishment superstar soprano Renée Fleming could write the book on. Most recently, Fleming performed a program, presented by Washington Performing Arts, that was almost an introspective look at her career as a singer, and welcomed her audience into the conversation. She began her recital with Schumann’s song cycle “Frauenlieben,” which as she explained was something she sang often in her earlier career, but had not heard it performed much lately.

Joined by the pianist Olga Kern, the two took the packed concert hall of Kennedy Center listeners on a journey that carried a wide range of emotional depth. Musically, the songs, for the most part, resided in the lower part of the voice and rarely reached into the higher tessitura of the soprano range. From the opening “Seit ich ihn gesehen,” which gave the listeners a glimpse of the radiant color of Fleming’s voice, while showcasing her ability to create a moment. The following songs flowed seamlessly from one to the next, occasionally interrupted by muffled coughs from the snow-chilled audience. Still, that was no deterrent to the soprano, who has an amazing gift of rationing her voice to the audience like a gourmet hors d’oeuvre preceding a full banquet. Kern was a shining star in her own right, instinctively creating a sense of musical unity with the sung text. The conclusion of the cycle was greeted with rapturous applause from an audience that hung on her every note.

Following the intermission, Fleming sang the music of Rachmaninoff and Strauss. This portion of the recital was the musical banquet to the ear that guests had been awaiting. Beginning with perhaps one of the most popular Rachmaninoff songs, “In the Silence of the Secret Night,” Fleming’s voice was now residing in a place of majestic power, no longer holding back as she had in the first half of the program. Likewise, Kern’s touch exhibited a new found weight, perhaps resonating back to a composer that has also served her well. In the song “The Waterlilly,” the piano sparkled and danced around the dark, haunting vocal line, creating a beautiful visual. One thing was clear: there was much thought put into not only the partnering of the music, but the performers as well.

Devout Fleming followers seemingly look forward to her rendering of Strauss’ lieder, who is, by her own admission, her desert island composer. Of the songs, her account of Strauss’ “Ruhe, meine seele” was particularly glowing, encompassing several emotions under the umbrella of a singular musical offering. Capping the recital’s conclusion was a reflective postlude on the journey of “The Three Kings,” almost a whimsical return to a time of youthful discovery and wonderment.

The packed house cheered the soprano through several encores, including Puccini’s famous aria “O mio babbino caro,” Strauss’ “Cacilie,” Gershwin’s “Summertime” and a spirited audience sing along of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from the musical “My Fair Lady.” In her ever-charming way, Fleming playfully quipped to her faithful audience, “You can now add to your resume that you sang with me.”

Recently named among the Forty Under 40 for his contributions to arts and humanitiesPatrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and a M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. , where he serves on the alumni board of directors.  He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price.  McCoy  has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our  time, including , Joshua Bell, Martina Arroyo, Denyce Graves, Eric Owens,  Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence  Brownlee.  He is music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, DC.   Listen to these interviews and others  at Blog Talk Radio.  Additionally, he is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America. McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.

Related Articles