Renée Fleming lends her voice for MinnOrch concert of reconciliation

By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press

Soprano Renee Fleming has been called “the voice” by some, “the beautiful voice” by others. Perhaps you can add to her nicknames, “the human olive branch.”

For her appearance with conductor Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall Friday evening felt something like a peace offering to audience members still sore from management’s 16-month lockout of the musicians before a contract settlement earlier this year. The welcome mat was out — or, rather, red carpets at every entrance — and the champagne and gourmet desserts were on the house for a preseason gala concert. Well, on the house as part of your admission of $100 and up.

But the music that came from the stage felt as if sincerely motivated by a quest for healing. Five of the eight pieces performed were born in the opera house, but the program wasn’t just a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package. On the contrary, the concert’s most memorable performance was of its freshest piece, “The Strand Settings,” a song cycle by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg that’s received but one prior performance (a year ago at Carnegie Hall, courtesy of Fleming and the New York Philharmonic). It proved a haunting, ethereal work with a sound world all its own.

And an arresting forum it was for Fleming’s clear tone and impeccable control, as she delivered many of the emotionally intimate lyrics (from the poetry of Mark Strand) accompanied by instrumentation just this side of a cappella.

Strings or winds often shimmered subtly beneath her on long held chords, at one point her voice joined only by a percussionist rolling his finger around the rim of a glass.

Those desiring more conventional fare surely found salve in one of opera’s most transportingly beautiful arias, “O mio babbino caro” from Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Scicchi,” which Fleming followed with a rarely heard flamenco-flavored gem from Riccardo Zandonai’s “Conchita.”

But no songs tapped into the event’s emotional current as eloquently as two beautifully rendered songs by Leonard Bernstein: “Somewhere” conveyed a world-weary insistence upon clinging to hope after a trauma, while an encore from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” was a tender plea to “take care of this house.” In introducing it, Fleming made clear that she wasn’t referring to the renovated Orchestra Hall, but to “taking care of this wonderful orchestra.” And that’s something to which the capacity crowd could raise a toast at the post-concert gathering in the lobby, where the Grammy the orchestra won last January was at last publicly presented.