Music Review: Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey at the Kennedy Center

Friday, March 27, 2009

Frederica von Stade can make a hideous goose sound and still be absolutely charming.

"I Bought Me a Cat," an Aaron Copland song featuring a catalogue of barnyard animals, was one of many highlights of the mezzo-soprano's duo recital with bass Samuel Ramey at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. If the performance was vocally uneven, the seasoned duo's inimitable interpretations were well worth experiencing.

In a light, playful program mostly consisting of French arias, American songs and show tunes, von Stade seemed more at home than her partner. She was in radiant, champagne-toned voice, and her comic gifts often served her well. Given her dramatic ability, Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" was a predictable showstopper.

For Ramey, a wobble persisted, especially in sustained pieces. His upper range, however, was powerful and taut, and three calling-card Mephistopheles arias (Berlioz, Gounod and Boito) were mostly intact. Interestingly, his regal bearing and huge, searing voice actually enhanced the humor of songs such as Gershwin's "Just Another Rumba."

Throughout, preeminent collaborative pianist Martin Katz provided buoyant accompaniment, with amusing interpolations of familiar tunes into Gershwin songs such as "By Strauss" and a revamped version of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

As they bantered over "po-tay-to" vs. "po-tah-to" and Puccini vs. Rossini, von Stade and Ramey divulged the strength of their performance. They project distinctive, consistent stage personalities, an effect that seems increasingly rare. As they sang, one could imagine how and why they connected to particular songs. This intimacy lent each word extra resonance.

-- Ronni Reich

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