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Von Stade, orchestra successfully bring Bach the Bard

  • Jul 6, 2009
From The Register-Guard Farewell tours by famous artists are more often nostalgic love fests than artistic events. But the engaging opera star Frederica von Stade, who is on the first leg of such a tour, gave the audience at the Oregon Bach Festival both artistry and nostalgia. She was accompanied by the sterling Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra which, under the direction of Jeffrey Kahane, provided its own thrilling musical moments. It was a concert to cherish. Von Stade’s program was relatively light, but the delightful singer had the audience eating out of her hand from the moment she entered and almost tripped on a chord. She shrugged her shoulders and smiled, just as she did at some mistakes during her recital. Yet she still has an exceptional ability to portray a character vividly and convey its emotions to the audience while singing with warmth and technical skill. Because one of the themes of this year’s Bach Festival is Shakespeare and music, von Stade began her program with two songs inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. The strophes from Berlioz’s eclectic work on “Romeo and Juliet” provided a rough start, but in her second piece, Gioachino Rossini’s version of Desdemona’s “Willow Song,” she sang movingly while accompanied by a beautiful harp solo. She then set herself another challenge with two sexy, Spanish-inflected French songs. How does a sixty-something grandmother (who looks younger than springtime) portray Carmen or the flirtatious girls of Cadiz? Successfully, with subtle gestures and a wisp of irony. The remainder of her program rested on light works, two songs from Jacques Offenbach’s operettas and a selection of Broadway songs. Von Stade’s original goal was to be a Broadway singer, and she is that rare opera singer who sounds comfortable in popular music. In the comic Offenbach songs, she portrayed with verve a grandiloquent duchess who loves the military and a very tipsy woman. Although unfortunately she used a microphone for the Broadway songs, their familiar tunes made them audience favorites. “Hello Young Lovers” and “Send in the Clowns” were particularly poignant. The orchestra was no small part of this evening. It played on its own three pieces inspired by Shakespeare, two by Berlioz and one by Sergei Prokofiev. It was Shakespeare’s messiness, his willingness to mix comedy and tragedy and to depict his characters’ passionate and changeable emotions that attracted Romantics like Berlioz. In his overture to “Beatrice and Benedict” Berlioz basked in the movement from light comedy to lyrical tragedy. In his depiction of the fairy queen Mab from Mercutio’s speech in “Romeo and Juliet,” Berlioz provided a lightness of touch that was reminiscent of Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Perhaps the most satisfying musical moment of the evening was the orchestra’s performance of selections from Prokofiev’s ballet suites for “Romeo and Juliet.” As expected, Prokofiev’s music is more startling and ominous than Berlioz’s, especially in the familiar “Montagues and Capulets” or “Dance of the Knights.” The strings were superb in their articulation of the lighter moments in both Berlioz and Prokofiev, and the heavy brass section sounded the ominous character of Prokofiev’s music. Kahane’s conducting brought out the passionate contrasts in each work. Yes, the concert was a love fest, but it was also so much more. Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.