Music review: Christine Brewer comes on strong, and soft

For a singer, it can be a challenge to create the intimacy of a song recital when your voice has the dynamic properties of one of the larger brass instruments. On Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, in an all-American program, the soprano Christine Brewer showed how it’s done: Sing loudly, and be yourself.

Circumstances conspired to help Brewer to a more informal approach. Before the second set — a cycle by the composer Alan Smith, who put to music excerpts of actual letters from an officer killed in World War II — Craig Rutenberg, the accompanist, found the first page of the music was missing and went off backstage to search for it, leaving Brewer alone onstage. (He could be pardoned for thinking the sheet of music might be there, since he and Brewer performed the same cycle in the same theater for the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts last year.)

“This is dangerous, when I’m left to my own devices,” Brewer quipped. “I may tell jokes.” She promptly did, presenting a variation on the time-honored theme of a pet store selling parrots with unusual talents.

Sure, it was no more than a moment of frivolity. But, in fact, it shifted the whole mood of the event, stripping away the presumed formality of a song recital and introducing the idea of fun.

It warmed Brewer up, too. Her opening set, a group of songs by Gian Carlo Menotti, sounded stiff and as if the songs were not yet familiar to the singer; she negotiated their vaguely modernist expressivity with correctness but little animation. (Menotti, though born in Italy, is considered an American composer, not least because his “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is, as the program notes correctly stated, perhaps the most popular American opera of all time.)

Rutenberg later referred to the break as his “Victor Borge” moment, referring to the Danish pianist-comedian whose broad humor made him a favorite of mid-century audiences. But it had a tonic effect: Afterward, Brewer was relaxed and in command. It also sounded as if she were more familiar with Smith’s music. The cycle is touchingly romantic in an anodyne sort of way but got a lot of oomph from Brewer’s powerful delivery.

Brewer does loud very well, but she has another, less expected strength: a golden quiet sound that floats like a flower borne on an ocean’s gentle swell. Both of these qualities came to the fore in the best piece of the night, Susan B. Anthony’s final aria from Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s second opera, “The Mother of Us All.” As the text evoked big sentiments and thoughts without quite pinning them down, Thomson’s music evoked a range of American idioms — the hymn, the Stephen Foster ballad, the march — and it fitted Brewer like a glove: big and outspoken and American and golden. At the end, she let loose with a messa di voce — a note that begins quietly, swells to full volume and returns to quiet — that could give you chills.

It’s not a quick voice. Admirably suited to Charles Ives’s more lyrical moods — such as the second of his two “Memories” — it tripped up in the more rapid, patter-y Ives songs, such as the first of those “Memories,” which she even had to start over.

And it’s not altogether a distinctive one. Brewer’s final set was devoted to songs from her latest album, a compilation of favorite encores from large-voiced sopranos of the past (she sang a set of these at last year’s recital as well). When she started “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” she channeled Eileen Farrell so unmistakably that the song leaped into vivid relief; it had a force that only the Thomson aria shared on this particular evening.

Rutenberg, always a consummate accompanist, shared in the spirit of fun and chattiness, introducing a set of Virgil Thomson piano solos (some of the composer’s musical portraits of his friends) with personal anecdotes and reminiscences of the composer. If it wasn’t an altogether stirring recital, it was certainly an enjoyable one, and at a time when Vocal Arts DC faces continually dwindling audiences, put off by the idea of a song recital as something arcane, enjoyment is a great thing to offer the public.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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