Renée Fleming Brings the Voice of Nature to The Conrad

Acclaimed operatic soprano Renée Fleming accompanied by pianist Inon Barnatan performed an unusual recital for the La Jolla Music Society Wednesday at The Conrad.

Renée Fleming [photo (c.) Andrew Eccles]

The first half of this program, titled Voice of Nature: the Anthropocene, included a nature film provided by National Geographic that was screened on the wall behind the two performers on the Baker-Baum Concert Hall stage. Great mountain vistas, wild animals in their habitat, and massive schools of fish swimming underwater played out in vivid colors as Fleming sang classical art songs, popular songs, and commissioned songs by Nico Muhly and Kevin Puts. With pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Fleming had made an award-winning Decca CD in 2021 with the same Voice of Nature title that contained much of this musical fare.

It is not unusual for a singer who has become more selective about opera performance to focus on recitals, and The Conrad–a 500-seat venue with flattering acoustics–provides an ideal vocal recital hall. I am happy to report that Fleming’s gorgeous upper range still offers much of its luster. In Handel’s aria “Care Selve” from his opera Atalanta, graceful leaps into that register were thrilling. In the song “Bailéro” from Joseph Canteloube’s cycle Songs of the Auvergne, Fleming’s suave, graceful phrasing reminded the audience why she has commanded a global operatic following. Nico Muhly’s dreamy commission “Endless Space” also benefited from Fleming’s elegant lines that floated over the engaging contrapuntal piano part. Kevin Puts’ “Evening” offered a more dramatic approach to the contemporary art song, and Fleming’s deeply felt arioso called to mind the vocal warmth of Samuel Barber’s nostalgic Knoxville: Summer 1915.

At The Conrad: Inon Barnatan, Renée Fleming, and sharks [photo (c.) Ken Jacques

For her popular songs, Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” and Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” Fleming used a microphone, which is typical of how these songs are performed. But the slight amplification also compensated for the weakness of Fleming’s lower vocal range, which was evident in her classical art songs as well as her one opera aria, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” on the program’s second half.

American pop singers traditionally have made crystalline but seemingly effortless enunciation their calling card—you always know exactly what they are singing about. In her Bacharach song and “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern on the second half of the program, I would say this skill is still on Fleming’s to-do list for this repertory.

In addition to his masterful collaboration with Fleming, Inon Barnatan, who also serves as Music Director of the La Jolla Music Society’s annual SummerFest, offered two eloquent piano solos, Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Presto” from his Moments musicaux Op. 16, No. 4. Barnatan’s mesmerizing, transparent textures nestled between impassioned surges defined his Ravel, and the brilliance of his Rachmaninoff evoked the exhilarating fury of a full orchestra.

The program’s encore: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtonwn La Jolla on Wednesday, February 14, 2024.

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