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Love’s Voice Wearies Not

Photo by Decca/Andrew Eccles

The sound of Renée Fleming in song belongs on that shortlist of amenities — sunset through the Golden Gate, dinner at Matsuhisa — that make life on this planet preferable to all others. Even through the iffy electronics at the Hollywood Bowl last week, even with a slapdash and wildly varied program in which some numbers were, by her own admission, wrong for her glowing talents, Fleming delivered a full evening’s worth of her famous enchantment. I left after her third encore — I didn’t want anything to interfere with my memory of her “Casta diva” (from Norma); for all I know, she may be up there singing still. She has sung here before, but only in recital; she makes her L.A. Opera debut (in La Traviata) season after next. With the San Diego Opera she has sung Dvorák’s Russalka, and I keep a tape of her “Song to the Moon” from that opera close at hand, as some people keep Prozac. Hers is the voice that sounds the way moonlight looks.

I love the way Fleming has broadened her repertory in the past few years without the condescension that some opera stars indulge in. At the Bowl she began with Handel — two arias from Rodelinda, which the Met is staging for her next season, with the coloratura in beautiful command and the voice so pure that the Italian words not only came through but even made sense. (Wouldn’t it have been smart to use the video screen for those?) Later there were Broadway songs: Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers and, as an encore, the Lullaby from Porgy — all delivered with real feeling, not the encumbrance of an opera diva manufacturing operatic emotion. There was also some classy operatic stuff: the Bolero from Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers (showoff music that she’ll probably never get to sing onstage, as she fessed up in her endearing running commentary) and a knockout performance of the one worthwhile piece from Catalani’s La Wally — the only opera, Fleming delightfully explained, in which the heroine commits suicide with the help of a passing avalanche.

Charm, humor and genuine musicianship over a wide swath: These were the elements of a superior evening, far beyond the on-paper promise of an evening of tidbits. The Philharmonic, under the Houston Grand Opera’s Patrick Summers, contributed handsomely. And so, I am pleased to report, did the Bowl itself, whose sight-and-sound electronics staff seems finally, a couple of weeks into the season, to be gaining command of the monster. Fleming’s voice was nicely microphoned, cushioned by surrounding air and well balanced with the orchestra. The uncoordinated roving by video cameras was kept to a minimum — a sensible decision, with something as beautiful as Fleming’s face to focus upon. Even so, with a program like this — listing 18 separate works (plus encores), with the print impossible to read after darkness sets in — it seems like a waste of superior equipment not to run at least the names of selections, never mind the texts, across the screens. Such an omission communicates to the crowd that the music itself is the least important part of the Bowl experience, and I am here to disagree.

 

Karl Kohn — Vienna 1926, Harvard, Pomona since 1950 — is a distinguished and ongoing part of our musical history; so is his wife, Margaret, whom he met as a Harvard undergrad. As a two-piano team they performed Book II of Pierre Boulez’s Structures at a Monday Evening Concert in March 1965, celebrating the opening of LACMA and the composer’s 40th birthday. In November 1959, the Kohns had performed Book I of Structures at a previous Monday Evening Concerts venue, Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park. Walter Arlen, writing in the Los Angeles Times, found that the performers “produced cold and glassy sounds with astonishing sureness on two pianos which . . . surely must have been wired for agony.” Last week the Kohns again played Structures (Book II this time) at a special Monday Evening Concert put together to connect with LACMA’s “Beyond Geometry” Exhibition. Walter Arlen was in the audience, as he usually is for such events. Some things remain.

The “cold and glassy sounds wired for agony” this night might better refer to music earlier in the program, a John Cage proposition called 19”37.998’ for a Violin Player in which the fearless Johnny Chang drew sounds from Cage’s fragmentary scribbles on paper. These sounds, said the program, were meant to be heard by strollers as they moseyed through the extensive display of abstractions spread through the museum’s Anderson Building — an audible counterpart, if one was stirred to make the connection, to the varied visual intentions of the works on exhibit. Beyond the Cage work’s apparent intent to inspire from Chang’s instrument a constant stream of the most unappealing sounds imaginable, it had the happier result of turning the most abstruse components of the Kohns’ two-piano program across the plaza in the Bing Theater, by contrast, into lighthearted delight.

These included Steve Reich’s 1967 Piano Phase, music from Reich’s early fascination with effects reachable through tape phasing (as in his Come Out), music we once heard with a certain need for forbearance, perhaps some gentle mockery. All this is past; these early Reich works — Come Out most emphatically, and full-length performances of Drumming and this relatively brief Piano Phase — are part of a concert repertory of fundamental minimalist works from the last half-century, and I expect them to last.

About the Boulez Structures (either set) I am less sanguine. The freshness in the music the other night came from the Kohns’ vivid performance, the sense of conversational give and take as they fed each other the alternatives out of which each perfor- mance can be built. But this is the music of a bygone Boulez even so: later than the astounding Marteau Sans Maître but somehow stillborn. György Ligeti’s wonderfully vivid Three Pieces of 1976 came in between: music bursting with vitality and wit and, in the last of the three, overflowing with glints of color both subtle and wild, as if a painter’s trove had suddenly overturned and drowned us all. Perhaps it was hearing these amazing small works that drained the vitality from the Boulez; they made for an act I would not have wanted to follow.

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