Music Review: Fleming leads the NSO in a glittering gala

Style: "AE_BROWN"Soprano Renée Fleming headlined the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s gala concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Saturday night. Nashville was lucky to get her.

Every orchestra in North America wants the people’s diva as its opening night act – Fleming is to the gala month of September what Santa Claus is to December – so the NSO had to take a number. The Houston Symphony won the raffle, and Fleming appeared at its gala a couple of weeks ago. She’s in Ottawa this Tuesday for the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s gala concert, and then she heads back to Texas for the Dallas Symphony’s gala next weekend. At least Santa Claus gets the day off on Dec. 26. Fleming has to get ready for the Vienna State Opera’s production of Der Rosenkavalier.

As America’s favorite soprano, Fleming knows full well what Americans want out of a gala concert. They want to hear great music for sure. But mostly, they want to have fun. Fleming obliged. Her program included one bona fide masterpiece, Richard Strauss’ autumnal and bittersweet Four Last Songs. The rest of the show consisted of familiar opera arias, Broadway tunes and pop songs. For the appreciative crowd that packed the Schermerhorn, it was a welcome mix.

Music director Giancarlo Guerrero established the mood of the evening at the outset, leading the orchestra in a sparkling and vibrant account of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Op. 92. Fleming followed with Four Last Songs. Composed in 1948, these songs for solo soprano and orchestra were the final works Strauss completed before he died. It is sublime music. The critic Tim Page, in fact, described it as “holy music…brimming with life, love, longing, gratitude and, finally, a serene acceptance of approaching death.”

The Strauss has long been one of Fleming’s calling cards, though one might not have guessed that based on her performance in Nashville on Saturday. Balance problems often interfered with the performance, especially when the vocal lines dipped into Fleming’s weaker low range. At these times, Guerrero allowed the orchestra to drown out his soloist. All the same, her voice glistened in high notes, and her overall interpretation was one of elegance and sensitivity.

The concert’s second half was a musical hors d’oeuvre tray, filled with all manner of delectable selections. Fleming sang “Danny Boy” with sweet simplicity, and she gave an expressive and deeply meaningful account of composer J. Todd Frazier’s Coplandesque We Hold These Truths. The composer was in the hall and took a bow.

Fleming gave breezy renditions of two Broadway numbers – Richard Rodgers’ “The Sound of Music” and “A Wonderful Guy.”  Naturally, she was at her level best in Italian songs and arias. Her sound was plush and warm in Licinio Refice’s popular song “Ombra di Nube.” And she won a rousing ovation for her soaring and sumptuous account of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi.

Fleming sang three encores, the best of which was a shimmering rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” She also sang one pop song, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Fleming called on the audience to hold up their lighters during the Cohen song, in order to compete with Taylor Swift, who was performing across the street at the Bridgestone Arena.

Most of us don’t carry cigarette lighters anymore. We use our iPhones instead. But on Saturday, that gesture wasn’t necessary. In a battle of the divas, there’s no competition. Fleming wins hands down.

Note: The Nashville Symphony’s first concert of the season was on September 5. The NSO did not hold its gala until September 21, when Fleming was available.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.