OPERA NEWS - Christine Brewer & Craig Rutenberg
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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Christine Brewer & Craig Rutenberg

NEW YORK CITY
Alice Tully Hall
5/13/12

Christine Brewer opened her Alice Tully Hall recital of American music, on May 13 (Mother's Day) with some words extolling the occasion. Her sunny speaking voice is an appealing instrument in its own right, and the sound she produced moments later, at the first sung notes of Barber's "The Daisies," recognizably emerged from the same throat. But it had been transformed from the stuff of ordinary discourse into a means of aesthetic expression and moreover a thing of beauty in itself, its combination of warmth and power unparalleled among contemporary sopranos. In 2009, I heard Brewer and her pianist Craig Rutenberg in recital at Zankel Hall, but here — perhaps encouraged by the larger performing space — her sound was if anything even more epic in scale. 

The hint of a Midwestern twang in Brewer's spoken words didn't exactly carry into her singing diction, but the sense of plain, direct presentation did. She embodied of a thoroughly American kind of honesty that befitted the program. She seemed never to feel the need to underline the emotional substance of her material; music, text and expression emerged as one integral unit. This was clear from the beginning of the Barber set, with its decisive shift from the lyricism of "Daisies" to the melancholy of "With rue my heart is laden," presented by Brewer without any interpretive editorializing. The only blemish to her self-presentation came from her use of a music stand; still, she is a performer who can glance at her score and still let us know that she is there not to read music but to communicate with her audience.

The recital's major novelty was Alan L. Smith's 2002 song cycle Vignettes: Letters from George to Evelyn, from the Private Papers of a World War II Bride, a setting of letters from a G.I. killed in Germany just weeks before V-E Day. Smith's strength as a songwriter lies in his word settings; the cycle was impressive less for its musical argument than for its canniness in letting the soprano declaim the text and realize its sad, stirring sentiment. 

Rutenberg opened the second part of the program with a group of Thomson's piano "Portraits" — the miniature musical portraits of his friends that the composer made throughout his career — introducing them with a personal reminiscence that let us glimpse Thomson's variegated and dazzling social milieu. These introduced "My Long Life," the epilogue from The Mother of Us All, in which Brewer's classically poised, majestic reading turned Susan B. Anthony into a Gluck heroine, washed up on these shores.

Three Ives favorites followed, including a haunting "At the River." As at Zankel, Brewer and Rutenberg closed the printed program with a set called "Echoes of Nightingales" — sentimental but effective encore pieces associated with forbears such as Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel and Eleanor Steber. Just before it, the collaborators offered "For the Color of My Mother," Smith's setting of a poem by Brewer's own daughter. But the soprano seemed to reveal even more of herself in her final encore — the song Mira, from Bob Merrill's 1961 show Carnival. The character in the musical is an Italian girl, but the song's celebration of small-town virtues — of a place where "everybody knew my name" — had clear resonance for this great, uniquely American soprano. spacer

FRED COHN

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