The line between gawking and admiring a diva onstage is admittedly wide, but some visceral appeal cannot be denied when it comes to seeing and hearing a world-renowned figure only 40 feet away. So the hungry crowds dutifully appear, spring after spring, to be swept up under the spell of the world’s great opera stars in Lund Auditorium at the annual Trustee Benefit Concert for Dominican University.
On April 22 after a hush and a gracious entrance, soprano Deborah Voigt-of recent Salome fame at the Lyric Opera-strolled up to the plate. She offered Italian and German art songs, topped off with some American substance and a lot of home-grown fluff. And this audience couldn’t get enough.
The heaviest music of the day is Voigt’s calling card: Her meaty interpretations of the late Romantic behemoths Strauss and Wagner have landed her leading roles in Vienna, Munich, London, and New York. In River Forest, she presented three Strauss lieder with conviction and powerful emotion. Against the full sound of the piano with the lid all the way up, Voigt’s voice resounded to the rafters, bursting with sorrow in “Song of the Women,” heavy with mourning for the poet’s fallen hero.
Strauss staples were balanced with an array of lesser-known fare, including an obscure Masonic cantata (K. 619) for solo soprano, penned by Mozart in the last five months of his life. Voigt’s withdrawn and thin delivery, while perhaps appropriate for the classical era, did nothing to hint at the more powerful works ahead on the program. But one expects, in a solo recital, to see a side of the singer that is often masked by the trappings of acting and costumes on the opera stage, and so this tame opening work, lacking even a flashy cadenza which might have elevated it, showed Voigt in a rare instance of understatement.
One got the feeling that this performance had been engineered to the last detail. Her voice was supple, her interpretations clear, her gaze intent, even her eyelashes curled just right. Her sequined black-and-gold, scoop-necked gown helped create an aura of power and solidity. Extremely assured and almost too much in control, she sequenced from one piece to the next with minimal downtime in between, perhaps because the eager audience applauded after every number. Yes, count ’em: 23 applause breaks!
More to the point was her soulful reading of four pieces by Giuseppe Verdi on themes from distressing death to rowdy drinking. In these often poignant explorations of emotion and psychology, the personality began to peek through Voigt’s carefully prescribed concert facade.
Given the raft of lieder and operas in the European tradition, it was somehow reassuring to see American composers get consideration on this program, which did not mean any sacrifice in quality of either vocal performance or compositional eloquence. Voigt recently released All My Heart, featuring much of this repertoire on EMI Classics. Amy Beach’s lovely art songs, for instance, could hold their own against Debussy or Rachmaninov, whose musical accents were hinted at in the shimmering accompaniments beautifully executed by pianist Brian Zeger. No one could make Robert Browning’s “Ah, Love, But A Day” come more alive than Beach, Zeger, and Voigt on this afternoon.
The final set, devoted exclusively to Leonard Bernstein, showed this often flamboyant and sometimes giddy Broadway romper in some of his more pensive moments. Particularly touching was “So Pretty” (“We were learning in our school today … and I had to ask my teacher why war was making all those people die”), after which the audience sat for a collective silent sigh before cracking the mood with applause.
On a festive day such as this 27th annual benefit, an encore would be the proper entree for the wining, dining, and feting to follow. Voigt brought out Irving Berlin’s “I Love the Piano” for her first return to stage. She revved up the crowd by landing, with grace, on the piano bench next to Zeger, where she ably pumped out a few bars of ragtime, complete with a page turn, scripted to please. The final tidbit of entertainment was a roaring rendition of Jerome Kern’s “I Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” after which the gentleman next to me spontaneously leaned over and confessed, “I thought she was great!” Like the rest of us, he couldn’t help lovin’ that girl.
Transatlantic talent exchange
Oak Parker Jay Friedman, music director and conductor of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest and principal trombonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has been boning up on his Italian lately. Friedman was guest conductor for the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Turin, Italy in its regular season concerts, May 1 and 2.
For Friedman, who is usually watching the baton in a world-class orchestra instead of wielding it, the opportunity to conduct such a prominent ensemble is a career high point. Sticking close to home, he invited Daniel Barenboim, former music director of the CSO and renowned pianist, to join him as soloist in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Selections from Wagner’s Ring Cycle completed the program.
The largest orchestra in Italy, RAI is the official Italian radio orchestra, whose broadcasts can be heard on five continents. The orchestra’s principal conductor is Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Perhaps better known to Americans as the site of the 2006 Winter Olympics, Torino claims many awards for its orchestra, among them an Emmy for Outstanding Classical Music-Dance Program in the 2000 soundtrack of La Traviata with Zubin Mehta conducting.
While Friedman is on site in Italy, Bruce Polay will appear as guest conductor of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest. Conductor of the Knox-Galesburg Symphony, Polay leads his own composition, “Sparkle,” as well as Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor on May 6 at 4 p.m. at First United Church. Alexander Djordjevic, a native of Chicago with numerous first prizes to his credit, is the piano soloist.