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23 Aug 2005

CHRISTINE BREWER — The ‘Anti-Fleming’

As everyone knows, the art of the song recital is in decline. When you and I were young Maggie, Columbia Concerts and Community Concerts regularly sent vocal and other musical artists all around America providing a never fading rainbow of wonderful music, as great classical music performers educated and thrilled us with their art. For example, As a youth I once heard Leonard Warren give a recital in a high school auditorium in Webster Groves, Missouri, price of admission $5. I still have the ticket stub - and the memories. Kathleen Ferrier, Robert Casadesus Jennie Tourel and Guiomar Novaes performed in my town when I was a kid.

Now the rainbow has faded and only a few festivals and occasional venues in the largest cities offer such vocal and instrumental recitals. Happily, one of these is the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, which presented the elegant soprano Christine Brewer in a concert of American art songs August 9, in the 400-seat St Francis Auditorium, part of the Museum of New Mexico in downtown Santa Fe. La Brewer sang to an audience of musical cognoscenti, alas in a half-filled hall. Her co-equal at the piano was Craig Rutenberg, and together they gave a 90-minute program that was the stuff of legend it was so beautifully achieved. In her unaffected naturalness as a singer, it seems apt to call Brewer 'the anti-Fleming.' Both sopranos are gifted artists, but Brewer's artistic integrity and naturalness make her an ideal recitalist compared to the over-contrivance and mannerisms of a Fleming. Bottom line: Brewer is there for the music, nothing else gets in the way.

As is becoming known, Brewer's large, wide-ranging soprano voice is one of the most beautiful before the public today. She is singing Isolde in Edinburgh as I write this, and will be San Francisco's Isolde next season, and no doubt will be heard in other Wagnerian roles over years to come. One of my favorite comments read recently about Brewer is, "she may be in her late 40s, but the voice sounds 35!" This is true; her tone is rich and steady; she is the mistress of color and nuance; her musical instincts are true and dramatically valid; her diction is clear (as St Louis heard in June with her Queen Elizabeth in Britten's Gloriana), and her command of dynamic shading is breathtaking. She has everything that Helen Traubel had, plus the three top soprano notes, and everything Eileen Farrell had plus the ability to sing a haunting piano and spinning pianissimo tone. If this sounds like I am overstating things, go hear for yourself.

The program of art songs, as they used to be called, was well chosen and smartly paced. Works of John Carter and Richard Hundley, along with an operatic sounding mini-cycle by J. C. Menotti dominated the first half. This music seemed not well known to the audience, which received it warmly. Better known were songs of Charles Ives and Harold Arlen, and a set of four songs regularly sung by Kirsten Flagstad on her American recital tours, by Sam Barber, Edwin McArthur, Walter Kramer and Mildred Lund Tyson. Kramer's was an impressionistic song "Now Like a Lantern," from 1919 based on a James Joyce poem; it was fascinating. For her first encore, the intrepid soprano took on the music critics with a song by Celius Dougherty, "Review" that parodied a critique of a vocal recital. This derring-do paid off with its gentle but pointed chiding of cliched review writing; the audience was much amused by the singer's comic abilities. Brewer ended with a surprise, "If I Could Tell You," the long-forgotten theme song of The Voice of Firestone, a song that once swept America every week on radio and television, written by none other than Idabelle Smith Firestone, wife of rubber magnate. The moment Craig Rutenberg played the intro much of the audience stirred in recognition of the sentimental ballad, and after the soprano's radiant performance gave her a standing ovation. Mrs. Firestone never had it so good. [The song can be heard on a number of VHS video tape issues of The Voice of Firestone, performed by a wide variety of singers, none finer than the youthful golden soprano of Eleanor Steber.]

J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico
© 2005

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