Orchestral Music, Vocal Music Review

BMC: Frederica von Stade Returns - There's Something About Presence...

July 22, 2005 - Brevard, NC:

Professor Peter Schickele, biographer of alleged neglected composer P.D.Q. Bach, once said, "You can't have opinions about truth. You know, truth is just truth."

In a program that included orchestral pieces by Nicolai, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, the truth is that Frederica von Stade owned the whole place without ever saying a word. Her arrival on stage sent a shock wave of excitement through c.1,100 audience members, and as she acknowledged the welcome with a small head-nod, the din of applause grew louder. She has a Zen-like affect - less is more; it is as if no one else is present and we are gathered only for this moment, for this next thing.... All is as it should be, and no doubt everything will be okay. We believed it.

Appearing at BMC for the fourth time, most recently in 2000, the mezzo-soprano, widely revered as one of America's finest artists and referred to as "Flicka" by friends and fans, prepared a mixture of French arias and art songs with the 95-member BMC Orchestra, David Effron conducting.

Her instrument produces a highly cultivated and cultured sound; she has a full range of musical tools, a purity of timbre, impressive range, and equally impressive but controlled forte that filled the W-P Auditorium. All of this springs from a trim and always stationary figure using only her arms for emphasis or additional expression. That such a magnificent voice appears from such a small place speaks volumes about efficiency of technique and economy of motion.

In her first-half appearance she sang six selections from Chants d'Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube. Written with skill and tailored for singers, these miniature stories of shepherds, simple folk life, and love in central France were carefully culled for warm-up/centering and lyrical line. In the second half were two arias from Mignon by Ambroise Thomas – "Connais-tu le pays" and "Me voici dans son boudoir." The concert concluded with Jacques Offenbach's "Tu n'est pas beaux [sic]," from La Perichole, and "Ah, que j'aime le militaires" from La Grand-Duchesse de Gérolstein. Throughout, von Stade gave translations of the texts, often providing humorous insight. Repeatedly called back for curtain calls, she praised the orchestra and offered special affection for Maestro Effron.

Backstage, I asked about her current schedule. "I don't have as many performances each year as I once did. I've cut back to about thirty." I asked which was her favorite venue, worldwide - not out front but for the amenities backstage. "Well, the Met in New York, because that's where I got my start. That's home to me." About her return to Brevard Music Center and working with these musicians, she said, "This is my fourth appearance here and I love this place simply because it exists! The musicians are fantastic, and to work with David (Effron) is a personal and professional thrill. He's tremendous."

This concert began with the Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai. It is a satisfying and vigorous romp through the usual sort of material useful in opening pieces – long tones, plenty of passagework and scales, then rhythmic variety, and ending with lots of noise. Effron drove the final cadence so hard he nearly lost his balance at the podium. Almost!

Next came the sunny and youthful Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, of Felix Mendelssohn. Clearly he was a young man in full command of generous composing skills and vivid impressions of Italy. Although it was finished in 1833, it was not published because Mendelssohn felt the need for revisions. He died before any of that work could be completed, but the four-movement work lives an active life in the repertoire. Bruce Murray, in a program note for the BMC, called it "the quintessential fusion of Romantic affect and Classical diction...." This is a happily-apt description that was wholly validated by the BMC Orchestra.

The final orchestra piece was the Suite from The Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky. In four movements, it concludes with the famous signature waltz (Valse) so common to ballet performances. The second movement (Adagio: Pas d'action) featured an extended harp cadenza that had all the full reach arpeggios you expect from a harp, and more! It was faultlessly played by Principal Harp Katie Buckley.

Once again David Effron had everyone wired for the full distance, including an encore with von Stade – "Can't Help Loving that Man of Mine," from Jerome Kern's Showboat. At the end of the concert, he was – as usual – soaking wet with perspiration and physically drained, but his disposition is always pleasant when it is time for the patrons' reception. There is no doubt he is a very popular guy at those functions, all the time.