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May 28, 2010

Kathleen Battle soars with Baltimore Symphony, Morgan State Choir

More than a year ago, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced its 2009-2010 season, two of the eye-poppers involved famed singers.

One, Jessye Norman, never made it; "scheduling conflicts" prevented her appearance in "Ask Your Mama," a multi-media, multi-genre project based on a Langston Hughes poem. But another soprano, Kathleen Battle, arrived this week as planned to join the BSO and Morgan State University Choir for a newly constructed program commemorating the Underground Railroad. It's an ideal vehicle for Battle, as the audience Thursday night at Strathmore discovered. The repeat performance Saturday at the Meyerhoff would be well worth catching.

This event had "must-hear" all over it from the get-go, if only for the opportunity to hear Battle again. Since the soprano's much-publicized dismissal from the Met back in the 1990s, she has not been a presence in the opera world. Recitals and concerts with orchestra don't seem to have been all that numerous, either. And she doesn't exactly have recordings coming out every month. So being able to experience the voice was an irresistible draw, especially since this program was built around spirituals, a genre she has long shown great affection and affinity for.

The first thing evident Thursday night was that Battle, at 61, still

retains a remarkable amount of the vocal radiance that made her a sensational star decades ago -- the purity and accuracy of the tone, the clarity of articulation (many a singer could learn from her distinct consonants), the ability to connect with a text and make a listener feel the same connection. Battle never had a large voice, yet was able to be heard in places like the huge Met; her voice penetrated easily at Strathmore. There's just something magical about that sweet sound. 

The soprano spun out compelling phrases all night, sometimes with jazzy inflections that had terrific spontaneity and naturalness, sometimes with a disarming, Schubertian gentleness. Top notes didn't come as effortlessly, perhaps, as they used to, but there was an awful lot of loveliness in the timbre just the same.

Battle could not have been more heart-warming than in the a cappella selections, especially "Over My Head" and her encore, "Were You There" (I heard that one from the first balcony, where the voice floated quite beautifully). When the orchestra was involved, Battle projected with little difficulty; conductor Damon Gupton, a sensitive partner throughout, did his best to maintain an effective balance. It may have been frustrating for the players to keep a lid on for most of the evening, but it paid off. The ensemble's admirably nuanced support in such endearing, enduring gems as "This Little Light of Mine" complemented Battle's glowing vocalism fully.

As usual, the Morgan singers sounded splendid, whether adding their voices to a cappella numbers with Battle or to orchestra-accompanied pieces. The choir also got a couple of solo spots; "The Battle of Jericho," in Moses Hogan's brilliant arrangement and conducted by Eric Conway, packed a particular wallop.

A highlight of the evening was "Balm in Gilead," which inspired exquisite phrasing from Battle, a sweet blend from women in the chorus, and silken support from the BSO. In such moments -- and there were many -- the full emotional depth and melodic appeal of spirituals came through with affecting grace.

The BSO had the spotlight to itself a couple times. Gupton led subtly molded performances of "Land of Peace" from William Grant Still's "Africa" (why do we always have to wait for African American-theme programs to hear something by this great 20th century composer?) and some wonderfully atmospheric music by James Lee, III -- "...and on either side of the river" from his "Beyond Rivers of Vision" (we should get more opportunities to hear the works of this contemporary Baltimore-based composer, too).

Interspersed through the program were readings from the work of Frederick Douglas, read by Kweisi Mfume with the mesmerizing vocal richness and telling inflections of a seasoned actor.

As effective as the concert was, there were some little problems -- crossed signals, awkward breaks in the flow. These should be smoothed over before Saturday's performance. And I sure hope the Meyerhoff crowd will pay more attention to silencing cell phones and other noise-makers than the miscreants at Strathmore did (Battle would have been forgiven had she decided to walk off stage).

Ultimately, nothing could diminish the warmth of the music-making and the satisfaction of being in the presence of Kathleen Battle's still-gleaming "little light."

FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:39 AM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

"Recitals and concerts with orchestra don't seem to have been all that numerous"

I heard Ms. Battle in 2001 at the Brevard Music Festival with orchestra, Richmond, VA in 2003, 2004 and 2007 at The Kennedy Center, and 2008 and 2010 at Carnegie Hall. Ms. Battle has been quite busy. Did you see her on the American Music Awards performing with Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah?

Tim- I had the opportunity to hear the performance at the Meyerhoff. The highlight was the MSU choir. Ms. Battle's voice at times was barely audible and I was in row T. Though from a "volume" standpoint she was able to carry the high notes. I cannot speak for the Strathmore crowd, but we were quite patient while she went on and off stage as if sets were being changed. They weren't. I t was irritating.
Both solo pieces by the BSO were beautiful and I agree an evening of either composer would be a pleasure.
Though I personally would pass on Ms. Battle's next appearance in Baltimore, I will look to see MSU's schedule for next year.

Thanks for the report. I'm sorry you weren't able to hear Battle all the time. Strathmore's acoustics are, I think, much friendlier to solo voices than those at the larger Meyerhoff. I remember some folks complaining some years back that they couldn't hear the unamplified Renee Fleming at Meyerhoff when she sang with the BSO -- and that's a much bigger voice than Battle's. (Battle gave a recital at Meyerhoff in the '90s, before my time here; I wonder how that worked.) Anyway, I'm glad you shared my enthusiasm for the choir and the Still and Lee compositions. TIM

It attended the Saturday Concert and agree with your assessment. I write more in my blog: http://www.alhathaway.com/2010/05/ms-kathleen-battle.html

The Meyerhoff and the BSO is understanding its market far better. The lineup for this season is outstanding.

Thanks for the comments and the link. TIM

I had the brilliant pleasure of seeing Ms Battle for the first time at the Meyerhoff may 29, 2010......maybe I am biased, but her performance was the sun, moon and stars...it was EVERYTHING!!! The ONLY thing that would have made that night better would have been nothing short of Ms Leontyne Price singing Zweite Brautnacht from Die Agyptische Helena! I cant wait to see Ms Battle again!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog
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