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CHAMBER REVIEW
Sonoma State University Department of Music / Sunday, March 29, 2015
Trio Ariadne; Argento Ensemble, Michael Galante, conductor. Fredericka von Stade, soprano

Soprano Frederick von Stade

AUTUMNAL MAHLER SONGS BY VON STADE IN WEILL HALL CONCERT

by Mary Beard
Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sonoma State’s Music Department sponsored a farewell concert in Weill Hall March 29 for the Trio Adriadne, artists-in-residence for the last two years. Combining with the Trio (Carol McGonnell, clarinet; cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdótter; pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe) was the Argento Chamber Ensemble, directed by of Michel Galante, and with the Ensemble the diva Fredericka von Stade. The Trio and the Argento gave the bulk of the program.

Each member of the Ariadne performed solo part in one of the pieces. Except for a short fragment of the unfinished Schumann D Minor Piano Concerto, all the works were contemporary, including a solo piano work by Mr. Galante, and early in the program he said “If you’re not used to hearing the contemporary medium of Western Music, I suggest you just listen and react; with each piece, you’re likely to love it or hate it.” And listening to comments from the audience, I’d say that was the case. Some of the works were quite interesting with lots of textural variety, and some were disturbing, ethereal, repetitive or annoying. For me, the two most interesting were a performance by Philip Edward Fisher of Mr. Galante’s “Megalomania,” which jumped all over the keyboard with a bombastic quirkiness, and Ligeti’s “Cello Concerto,” performed by Ms. Thorsteinsdóttir. It began with a single cello note, going from pppppppp to perhaps mp over a minute and a half, with other instruments eventually joining in on the pitch. It was very dreamlike but texturally quite intriguing.

The orchestra members and most soloists wore the traditional black concert attire, but when soprano Frederica von Stade came on stage for the concert’s last section, she wore black with a bright red scarf-like tunic which was exquisite and the presence of a splash of color was almost breath-taking after so much somberness.

It was also the first time all evening that true tonal color was heard as well and I basked in it. Up to Ms. von Stade’s singing there was much textural variety but nothing that felt personal and warm, and the artist immediately delivered intimacy and warmth with great depth of beauty.

Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” were written with the composer’s own lyrics in 1884-85, in the wake of his unhappy love for soprano Johanna Richter, whom he met while a conductor in the Kassel opera house. Later Mahler’s protégé Arnold Schoenberg scored the work for two wind instruments, piano, percussion and string quintet. Mr. Galante expanded this version to 15 players and this was what was heard accompanying Ms. von Stade. The sonic texture was not as lush as Mahler’s original, but it was surely personal and a provocative conversation of different instruments.

After 41 years on the opera and recital stage Frederica von Stade’s voice is as healthy, vibrant, and colorful as ever. It sounds as fresh as it did at the height of her career. She had some signs of a cold and cough at beginnings of very soft phrases, but it was truly an impeccable performance by a sterling artist. The four songs showed a range of emotions from distraught declamation to haunting melancholy, and eventually to vulnerable but optimistic acceptance of the new life journey ahead. The easiness of her voice seemed to pull the audience into the depicted pain, anguish, vulnerability and tenderness. In the first Song (“Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht”) and the third (“Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer”) the chest tones were powerful.

The Ensemble played in elegant communication with the vocal lines, and in the final song (“Die zwei blauen Augen”) the singer established a melancholy tone, and half way through, when she sings of finding a linden tree to rest under (and showered by its blossoms) the subtle drama moved to a major key and a sunny sense of hope and newness of life.

Her diction was excellent and the German easy to understand in all parts of her range. She used very little physical gesturing to display emotion, but allowed her voice and face alone to display the grand palette of emotional color. She was a joy to watch and to hear.

The audience of 1,100, liberally sprinkled with singers, gave the artist a standing ovation. There was no encore.

Susan Witt-Butler contributed to this review