Fleming provides radiant advocacy for Puts song-cycle with Dallas Symphony

Mon Nov 08, 2021 at 11:20 am
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Renée Fleming performed Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light Sunday afternoon with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Lyric Opera of Chicago

On Sunday afternoon Fabio Luisi led a performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra that served as a brilliant kick off for the third annual Women in Classical Music Symposium

Opening with Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, the program centered on Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light, a 12-part orchestral song cycle inspired by the life and artistry of American modernist artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The work was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in July 2019, though this weekend’s DSO performances mark the work’s North Texas debut.

An expansion of Puts’ Letters from Georgia O’Keefe, a 2015 work commissioned by the Eastman School of Music, the work’s origins are rooted in a collaboration between Puts and renowned American soprano Renée Fleming, who performed the role with the DSO this weekend. Fleming is also slated to participate in the Symposium’s lecture series as a guest speaker this week, and will be honored as this year’s recipient of the Award of Excellence.

A multidisciplinary experience with visual projections designed by Wendall Harrington, The Brightness of Light chronicles O’Keeffe’s path from young aspiring artist to the end of her life. Told through the letters between her and her mentor-turned-husband Alfred Stieglitz (portrayed by baritone Rod Gilfry), the story is intensely intimate, with ever-shifting moods of light and dark permeating the narrative’s through line. It explores with stark realness the entwinement of love and art, the implications thereof, and the concepts of personal growth and self-actualization.

O’Keeffe, 20 years Stieglitz’s junior, went from his muse, to mistress, to wife, culminating in a romance undone by infidelity. When she learned of his affair after several years of marriage, she moved to New Mexico and found enduring inspiration in the natural aesthetics of the American southwest, where she died at the age of 98.

Puts’ score is vivid and captivating. His distinct, lyrical style is evident in the vocal writing, set against eclectic orchestral coloring that evokes post-war modernism. Text settings range wildly from light, sparse textures to strident orchestral declarations with dissonant tonal clusters.

“First Correspondence,” the work’s second movement wherein Fleming and Gilfry portrayed the artists’ initial interactions, was tense and yearning, while “Violin,” captured Georgia’s failed attempts at learning to play the violin with joviality and playfulness.

Harrington’s imagery—mixing old photographs of the two lovers, their letters and artwork, and abstract footage—was provocative, abstract, and, at times, hauntingly detailed. Expositional text also helped to codify the narrative arch, thoughtfully attaching the visual medium to the aural one.

Fleming was in lovely form Sunday afternoon, with a tenderness and vulnerability of tone that carried fully through her range. Her phrasing was equally affectionate, sometimes spry, lending to glimmering peaks and rich lows.

Gilfry turned in a fine interpretation, though his tone often favored heft over blend with fitfully wayward intonation. His reading of “A Soul Like Yours,” was full and resonant, though lacking in appropriate color and mood.

Luisi’s command over the wide range of the musical literature here was evident, and the DSO navigated the score with consistent energy and cohesion. Most notably, the open, ethereal wane of the work’s closing was poignant and thought-provoking.

Sunday’s repeat of the Strauss, which the DSO also performed last week as part of their main concert series, was pointedly fresh. Here, Luisi set slower, more expressive tempos, comparatively, and injected a sense of breathing into the texture that served the existential theme at the work’s core.

The contrapuntal nature of the piece, scored for 23 strings, was expressed with equal clarity and precision as DSO members responded to Luisi’s edits with marked musicality and artistry. Sunday’s performance of Metamorphosen presented a thoughtful and welcome improvement on the opening concert last week.

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