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Thursday, December 10, 2015

1986: Year of the Diva

From the Metroland Vault Dept.: We used to offer an end-of-year roundup of classical-music concerts, hoping that would seem important, and I tried to get to every damn one of them back then. Here’s my appraisal of the Albany area’s 1986.


IT WAS THE YEAR OF THE DIVA in area halls as the one area of classical music guaranteed to attracted the fewest and most fervent got a great celebration.

Aprile Millo
Newcomers and the established – it didn’t matter. The programs were traditional, the programs were varied. And the stars were all sopranos.

Oh, there was some swell fiddlin’ going on, and orchestras and chamber groups galore came through the area. And I’m usually very partial to a crackerjack instrumental concert, figuring a good reading of a Beethoven string quartet is worth a dozen song recitals.

Not this year. Starting back in February, when Marilyn Horne took the stage at Proctor’s with pianist Martin Katz. There is a soprano repertory that gets sung to death, but Horne presented a program that skirted the canon even as it made the most of her voice. We went through the usual Baroque-era openers of Vivaldi and Handel into a delightful, moody realm of German and Spanish songs; a tribute to Samuel Barber opened the second half with six songs that really deserve to be in the “greatest hits” repertory. Horne took the program to New York City and elsewhere, so she may be accomplishing that.

Still another perspective on the soprano repertory was gained the same month when Albany-based Anne Turner teamed with pianist Judy Kameny and others for “20th Century Perspectives: Music for Voice and Piano.” “Seven Early Songs” by Alban Berg were startling in their drama and clarity; George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children” proved to be much more than the nine days’ wonder it seemed when first performed 16 years ago.

Turner also joined forces with pianist Pola Baytelman for an April recital titled “The Song as Drama” that proved the premise with music of Liszt, Satie, Mussorgsky (in translations that Turner worked on) and Rodrigo; Joseph Fenimore’s “Party Songs” were poignant and a little Dorothy Parker-ish.

Schenectady native Kim Olson was preparing for a trip to Moscow back in May, and, with pianist Patricia Clark, previewed her contest audition program with superb success. Leaning heavily on tradition and Tchaikovsky, we were taken through the drama of Handel and Puccini and Bizet and others -- with some nice Barber thrown in as well.

As this season began, a crowded house at Siena College saw the area debut of Aprile Millo, a young woman who has taken the Metropolitan Opera by storm and thrown the city’s fanatics into even more passionate huggermugger than usual.

Her September recital, with pianist Eugene Kohn, had a sort of non-Cole-Porter “Night and Day” theme at its core. There were vocal essays on night and the moon (and, naturally, unrequited love and self-pity and all that other Sorrows-of-Young-Werther good stuff) by Bellini, Schubert and Dvořák. Daytime was saluted in songs by R. Strauss and A. Scarlatti.

Millo’s stage presence is a little looser than we’ve come to expect from a diva. She’ll make a comment or two to the audience; she even was nervy enough to carry her music out with her for a couple of songs. “I know this is a no-no,” she said. Nobody got too upset.

We saw it happen again, with another soprano superstar, when Kathleen Battle came to Troy in November. She swept onto the stage of the Troy Music Hall like a killer, completely in command of a program that made vast departures from tradition. There is beauty in such self-assurance, and Battle is physically beautiful, too.

She approaches every song with a character appropriate to the piece, and this sense of the actress at work adds to Battle’s charm.

It was a fairly chronological tour of not-too-often performed works by Purcell, Haydn, Liszt, Strauss and Obradors, with pianist Neal Goren a formidable accompanist.

Maybe the pianists and fiddlers and so on got a little soft last year; whatever the case, they better watch out: the sopranos may be organizing an assault with what was a very convincing first wave.

Metroland Magazine, 1 January 1987

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