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Christine Brewer [Photo by Christian Steiner]
17 Nov 2011

Tricks and Treats, New World Symphony

If this generation were to stake a claim to its own classical vocal music “Golden Age,” Christine Brewer presents a strong case.

Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28; Richard Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder (orch. Felix Mottl); Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68.

Christine Brewer, soprano. New World Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. Adrienne Arsht Center, Knight Concert Hall, Saturday, 29 October 2011.

Above: Christine Brewer [Photo by Christian Steiner]


To this listener, Brewer deserves the designation of Mastersinger, a small group and curious breed that occasionally contains in it a top lieder singer.

Lied is, in all cultures where “high-art” literature is transmuted into compilations of songs, made for the interpreter, for storytellers. Singers enter the culture of lied knowing full well it demands total subservience to telling the tale. As it is with the best of lieder interpreters (Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Christa Ludwig come to mind), Christine Brewer has a knack for this music that is partly inborn.

Lied history takes more formal shape in the 19 th century with the works of German composers; most prolific in the style was Franz Schubert; working in the style through the turn of the 20 th century was Hugo Wolf. Composers often set their lieder to a theme in a series, or cycle. The lieder singer is faced with the test of becoming as much a part of the background as they can possibly muster, coming in and out of the foreground to serve the music as indicated and in setting the poetry in high relief. The lieder singer further sets the tone for the theme and carries it through the cycle.

MTTChrisWahlberg.pngMichael Tilson Thomas [Photo by Chris Wahlberg]

Brewer makes this look easy. No one can qualify the Illinois native’s German as anything but romantic. She gets right to vowels, hanging on ever so lightly, giving consonants that snap that settles on the ear. Brewer exercises a judicious mix of vibrato treatments over a warm stream of sound and a tonal quality similar to Jessye Norman’s, with a more forward placement. The lower register is remarkably secure and round, climbing as that one proverbial “column of sound,” a sound that was born to soar. She reaches high-note territory (E, F and G) with ease; yet she builds phrases with sincerity and depth, which takes a tremendous amount of discipline. This is what she does; and it makes Brewer all the more special.

Billed as an evening of “Tricks and Treats,” New World Symphony (NWS) and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas hosted Brewer at the Knight Concert Hall on October 29th. The vocal portion of the concert consisted of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, what amounts to a serenade the composer created to the poems of his muse at the time, Mathilde Wesendonck, who is described as “one of the most significant women in Wagner’s life” in the program notes.

Even when Christine Brewer could let loose through Wagner’s five lied, she drew out plaintive tones that were an integral part of the story, saving her considerable powers for the articulation of German. Such was the case for “Der Engel,” where vocal control goes a long way in conveying how the selflessness of angels fills the hollowness of human existence. Brewer sang phrases that left one breathless, literally and figuratively.

Internal suffering was in full effect in “Im Treibhaus — Studie zu Tristan und Isolde,” where Brewer, Tilson Thomas and orchestra teamed for a moment of otherworldly waves of music, with violins playing off of one another in a way rarely heard. Brewer held a certain musical line while drafting steamy tones over the phrase “Malet Zeichen in die Luft,” where Wagner speaks to the horticulture of supernatural dispositions, asking nature to disclose its wonders.

“Schmerzen” brings more opportunity for vocal muscle, right from the first notes of the vocal line. Here still, Brewer created tones that came across as gentle acceptance of nature’s abiding relationship between life and death.

A conducting “Golden Age” for these times surely comes in the presence of Michael Tilson Thomas. He deserves the appellation Musikmeister. In NWS — America’s only full-time orchestral academy — he has a splendidly boundless and stimulating canvas with which to put to use and to share his inestimable experience and multitudinous skills. Michael Tilson Thomas and Christine Brewer are, individually, artists that bring a certain magic to everything they do. Together, Tilson Thomas and Brewer cause all aspects of a musical show to come into phase.

Tilson Thomas’ dancing with the New World Symphony is unison personified. In “Schmerzen,” where the descending scale of forte strings and winds calls for sudden passion and intra-instrument matching, the sound entered as if warmed up from a few bars back. The NWS conductor carries instrumentalists along with him — wrist rolls move bows and sway woodwinds; he revved up the baton to urge tempi, and brought horn players to the balls of their feet. It all happened at once. Tilson Thomas steps in the direction of a section, calling on them to build sound space, gesturing directions with his left hand, and pointing to have players attend to specific features. Thomas’ communication with Brewer was intense. He sought out her inflections and movements signaling different moods and changes in musical design.

The concert opened with Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and ended, after the Wagner lied, with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Strauss’ tone poem is an excellent vehicle to show off NWS. Its light beginning and exposed horn and long staccato violin stretches — all the way through the build up and Strauss’ playful winds and wide use of the percussion family — were played with nice contrasts, zinging accuracy and stamina to spare.

NWS showed versatility, power and pathos beyond their years in Merry Pranks and especially in the Brahms. The second movement was guided by Tilson Thomas as a soft hymn with hanging phrases of elegance and downward spins taken with care for keeping a joined soundscape. Improbable as it is, instrumentalists managed the most organic playing in the most demanding of Brahms’ orchestral drawings, the final movement. NWS took its shifts from driving chords to lush orchestral effects, creating a tightly held story right through to the ceremonial finish.

“Golden Age” or no, any night like this — pairing starry singer and starry conductor with a very hungry group of instrumentalists — ranks up there with any of the most vaunted classical musical moments, anywhere, anytime.

Robert Carreras

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