Chamberfest’s 17th season lifted off with a wonderful juxtaposition of circumstances. The marquee event for the annual small-ensemble extravaganza simultaneously said farewell (surely it’s just “adieu”) to one of the consummate singers of our time even as dozens of artists waited in the wings—eager to share their considerable talents with the festival’s patrons and fans.
This wide-ranging, quasi autobiographical recital succeeded on many levels. Even as Frederica von Stade’s breathtakingly spectacular, autumnal mezzo-soprano would frequently prove to be, having pianist/composer Jake Heggie “at the piano” was a stroke of artistic genius. Truly a composer’s accompanist, the affable musician treated the enthused audience with an understanding of why the notes were on the page, providing many insights that more accomplished pianists could only hope to achieve. That three of the selections were from his own pen only reinforced Stade’s trust, faith and sincere admiration for the composer of Dead Man Walking (cross-reference below) and, more recently, Moby Dick. Closing off the printed program with “Primary Colors” revealed yet again how the evocative words of Sister Helen Prejean and Heggie’s gift for economic understatement were the perfect combination to reveal the all-too-rare dramatic and musical skill-set upon which Stade has built such a storied career.
With two affable hosts from the national broadcaster providing witty introductions and shameless promotion in both of Canada’s official languages, it seemed entirely appropriate that the selections were also well divided entre English and French (only one disgruntled listener muttered “English” after Stade rhetorically sought permission from the crowd to introduce the second-part songs en Français; no one insisted that the vowel-rich French offerings be performed in their much “uglier” English translations). The sole German-text song (Mahler’s delightfully “animal” “Lob des hohen Verstands,” which opened the second half) served its subtle purpose like a sherbet between the varied songs that underscored the path to the stage (notably Copland’s “Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven” with its Gerald Moore-ish “Am I too Loud” cries flooding the hall and Ravel’s “la”-infused “Tout Gai” effortlessly complementing Geggie’s Ode to Greece: "Paper Wings”) and the more powerful and personal, largely operatic set that followed.
Curiously disappointing until the final verse was “Send in the Clowns.” The rare vagaries of pitch (in the sustained upper reaches or low-throated leading tones) heard earlier seemed to pile up in Sondheim’s magnificent essay of love lost. Still, after the full-cry power and stunning introspection from Werther and the pair of excerpts from Mignon, most other new voices would also be under some degree of stress.
The marvellously attentive audience (one of the quietest anywhere, with only a couple of badly timed water bottle squeezes competing with the art) quite rightly demanded more before saying goodbye to the miracle of diction and gesture. Of the three additional works, Puccini’s E l’uccellino was the highlight: a deft mixture of delicate phrasing and seemingly carefree delivery that aptly demonstrated the recent grandmother’s joie de vivre, young and old. The first, "I Can’t Say No" was a delightful confection of fun and equally expressed Stade’s reaction to the crowd’s insatiable desire for more.
With such an accomplished opening gala, the bar has been set enticingly high for the two weeks of concerts to come. JWR