Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Nice If Imperfect Complement: Renée Fleming and Patricia Barber in Concert at the Harris Theater -- Chicago Jazz Review

Jazz / Opera Review

Higher: Renée Fleming and Patricia Barber
Perform the Music of Patricia Barber
Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Chicago
December 14, 2015

It is due to the great regard I have for Renée Fleming--one of the world's most renowned opera singers, who I recently loved in The Merry Widow--and Patricia Barber--a jazz pianist/singer/composer who I've enjoyed at her Green Mill residency--that I thought it would be cool to see them together in a rather unique concert.

And that regard remains undiminished after witnessing a performance I found enjoyable though largely less than spectacular.

Titled Higher, this was supposedly the first in a concert series called To the Edge, which will see Fleming venturing beyond the opera world through various pairings. The program will soon be repeated in Washington, DC and New York City, and was recorded for broadcast on Chicago's WFMT Radio (98.7 FM) on December 21 at 8:00pm.

In addition to being a highly sought opera performer, the soprano Fleming serves as Creative Consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and while in town over the past few years she witnessed Barber at one of her regular Monday night gigs at the Green Mill.

From this, mutual admiration, collaboration and the Higher concert pairing seemingly developed.

It sounded like an intriguing proposition, but not one I jumped at until a rather inexpensive offer on Goldstar made it seem silly not to explore; I wound up sitting in the last row at the Harris, but the acoustics were good and my vision abetted by binoculars.

As delineated in the program, Fleming took the stage first, singing five songs written by Barber. During these, the opera star was accompanied on piano primarily by Craig Terry, although Barber did come onstage to play a second piano on a couple tunes.

Photo credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune
Fleming's voice is, of course, a brilliant instrument, and she conveyed that she would be singing Barber's songs an octave higher than Patricia herself does.

Yet while there was nothing unpleasant about her renditions or Terry's playing, Fleming's operatic leanings made Barber's lyrics indecipherable--they were printed in the program, but couldn't be read in the dark during the performance--and it seemed a shame that Renee and Patricia largely weren't performing together.

Eventually they did, but really only inspiringly so for the last 20 minutes of a 2-hour concert.

Before this, they did collaborate on some Christmas carols with Terry and/or the three male members of Barber's quartet, with whom Patricia played and sang for about a half-hour, sans Renee.

It was only when Fleming and Barber were left alone onstage together, chatted amiably (including about Patricia's penchant for playing piano with her shoes and socks off) and performed a Barber composition called "Surrender"--with Renee on vocals--that the concert became what I felt it should have been all along.

This was nicely followed by Barber singing "Opera Song," a piece inspired by Fleming, who provided a wonderful operatic flourish. And a encore reprise of "Scream"--a Barber song sung earlier by Fleming--became a rather high-energy romp thanks to some rock guitar flashes by Neal Alger of Barber's quartet (which also includes Patrick Mulcahy on bass and Jon Deitemyer on drums).

Not only was it nice to see Renee and Patricia musically interacting with some obvious dynamism--the holiday fare was lovely, yet a bit languid--but only near the end of the night did Fleming seem to truly go beyond her comfort zone.

I would love to hear her sing songs that aren't opera arias, but while clearly reflecting her regard for Barber's songwriting, the five opening songs had found her hewing too closely to her operatic stylings.

Perhaps this is what she thinks the audience wants and/or expects from her, but it came off too stiff, and while Barber's songs with her Quartet were enjoyable, they essentially replicated what one can better hear in the closer quarters of the Green Mill.

It was only when the two wonderfully-talented women cut loose and had some fun that they really seemed to be going to the edge…and then higher.

Next time, if there is to be one--perhaps the Green Mill would be a great setting--I suggest the face-to-face interaction should start a good bit sooner.

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