Thursday, January 20, 2011

The small town girl with the big city voice

Surprisingly, Jordan Hall was only two-thirds full last weekend for a rare Celebrity Series appearance by soprano Christine Brewer (at left).  But on closer inspection, it was apparent the entire crowd was made up of critics, musicians, and singers - so if Ms. Brewer doesn't have that much of a Boston following, at least what she has, as they say, is choice.

Still, there was a small murmur of dismay when it was announced that Ms. Brewer would be working without her announced accompanist - and that due to a cold, the concert would be somewhat abbreviated. So by the time the diva strode onstage in her shimmering concert-stage gown, with pianist Craig Terry by her side, expectations had been lowered to wind-chill-factor levels.

Yet all I can say is, if this is how she sounds when she's fighting a cold, I can't imagine what miracles this gal can accomplish when she's hale and hearty.  For Ms. Brewer revealed within seconds one of the most ravishing voices I've ever heard anywhere - so large, in fact, it all but amazed in an intimate space like Jordan Hall.  But her voice isn't just big, it's also deeply lustrous, and flexible yet forceful, without ever turning strident or shrill (except perhaps at the very top, where the cold was probably causing her some strain).  And again amazingly, there seems to be no "break" in her sound; it's glorious practically from top to bottom, and so spacious that listening to her is like moving into a huge, golden room - one you never really want to leave; plus she boasts a sense of pitch so secure that when Brewer gives a note all she's got you can feel a slight vibration sing through the structure of the hall.

The concert was, as a result, so delightful that I really don't have that much to say about it; for much of it I was just lost in pleasure; I think I actually may have been purring.  But for the record, Brewer warmed up with an aria from Gluck's Alceste (which pianist Terry wasn't quite ready to play, I don't think) before settling in with the composers she's a perfect match for: Wagner and Strauss.  From Wagner she sang the well-known song cycle "Wesendonck-Lieder" with a responsive authority that floated expertly from rapture to heartbreak and back (as pianist Terry likewise hit his stride).  And to tell true, the three songs from Strauss were even better; they seemed to represent some kind of peak of experience, artistry, and sheer talent; in fact I'm not sure I can really describe how good they were.

In the second half of the program, Brewer experimented with a variety of styles, and put her stamp on each one.  I could argue, if I felt like it, that with Britten's brilliant "Cabaret Songs" she may have put her foot slightly wrong; her voice is simply too big to slide easily in and out of the nearly-pop idiom of these witty numbers (the lyrics are by W.H. Auden).  But you know what?  I don't really feel like making that argument - Brewer caught the wit of the songs, and the feeling too, so who cares about the rest?  She shone even brighter in John Carter's "Cantata," which pushes the spiritual into grand opera territory (often to thrilling effect), and then demonstrated just how self-aware and funny she really is by tearing through a set of encores penned for other dames with big voices, people like Eileen Farrell and Kirsten Flagstad.  These proved to be the kind of songs that exhort us to love one another forever as we climb ev'ry mountain and fight on to the glorious dawn; they may be a hoot, but they're wonderful all the same (partly for being hoots), and Brewer sang the hell out of them.

For her own encore, the soprano charmed still further, with a sweet, all-but-forgotten song, "Mira," from the musical Carnival, about a homesick girl from a country town that's "very small - but still, it's there."  Brewer herself is from a little town outside St. Louis - which is a long way from the Met and Covent Garden; and I've heard that when she's not gracing stages like those (or ours), she still lives there.  And somehow, beneath the glories of Wagner and the wit of Britten, she communicated that, too.

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