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Remarkable but rough pieces from Illstyle & Peace

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-- Sarah Godfrey

OPERA

Kiri Te Kanawa

Rumors have been swirling for several years, now, that soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was bidding farewell to devoted audiences around the world. Not surprising. At 65, after a splendid 50-year career (she started very young) and with a number of other musical and educational interests on her horizon, it could be time to move on. But speaking to the audience in mid-recital at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall on Saturday, she served notice that there could be other Te Kanawa performances in D.C.'s future -- a cause for celebration.

Anyone attending on Saturday with expectations of hearing the opulent voice of so many youthful or mid-career recordings might have been disappointed. Dame Kiri's mid-range was edgy and her low notes no longer have the power they used to have. What she has retained, however, and has burnished to high art are the glories of soft and intimate singing, the power to mesmerize by shaping single, long-held notes, the dramatic possibilities of a text's consonants and a gorgeous and engaging stage presence. These she used masterfully, and they were enough.

The program, a generous one, was classic: a baroque group, several German and French sets, three of Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne" and, finally, some Italian (Puccini and Wolf-Ferrari). Her trademark "O mio babbino caro" (Puccini) came as an encore, as did the Maori folk song "Po Kari-Kari Ana," which, sung simply and without accompaniment, embodied so many of the special qualities Dame Kiri brought to the evening.

The Children of the Gospel Choir, conducted by Stanley Thurston, provided well-focused support in two sacred arias, and Brian Zeger, whose piano playing includes the uncanny ability to avoid any hint of percussive attack, partnered quiet but intense singing with quiet but intense accompaniment.

-- Joan Reinthaler

MUSIC

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Music Director Long Yu is clearly a disciplinarian conductor of the old school: This orchestra's sections are so united that string players not only keep their bows at the same angle but also lean and sway in unison to a work's rhythms. All this was evident in Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Overture, which got a brisk, slightly cool treatment that calmed some of the music's turbulence at the expense of some of its glow. Long was very active on the podium at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday night, with clear baton work and gestures. The result was a salutary treatment of a work that is all too often oversentimentalized -- although there was nothing revelatory in the interpretation.

There was more warmth in Bao Yuankai's "China Air Suite" -- excerpts from his 24-movement orchestral cycle, "Chinese Sights and Sounds." This symphonic treatment of traditional Chinese themes is so effectively dressed in Western instrumentation that the first movement, "Going to West Gate," sounded a bit like Copland. Its sinuous flute line above slow strings and gentle harp was an oasis of calm. "Flowing Stream" was yearning well conveyed, with long lines and warmth from the cellos. And "Can You Guess What Flower It Is" was bustling and upbeat.

It was back to Russia after intermission for Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring Di Wu, a finalist in the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year. Long conducted her actively -- more so than most conductors do with soloists -- giving the orchestra such prominence in the first movement that the piano was a bit wan and the work seemed more a symphony with piano obbligato than a concerto.

But the quiet languor of the second movement was lovely, especially the interplay of piano and cellos. And the finale was splendid -- a collaboration of equal parts beauty, bombast and bluster that carried through to utter triumphalism at the end.


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