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Music review: Christine Brewer brings Wagner and others to Disney Hall

June 2, 2010 |  2:30 pm
Taking advantage of an overly long mid-“Ring” three-day break at Los Angeles Opera -- between “Die Walküre” on Sunday and “Siegfried” on Thursday -- the Los Angeles Philharmonic did the neighborly thing Tuesday night. For its contribution to Ring Festival LA, the orchestra invited audiences across the street to hear Wagner’s “Wesendonck” Lieder gloriously sung by soprano Christine Brewer.

Not too many RSVPd. Attendance in Walt Disney Concert Hall was surprisingly modest. Nor was the Philharmonic on hand; its season ended Sunday. But Brewer’s appearance, accompanied by pianist Craig Rutenberg and the last of this spring’s Colburn Celebrity Series recitals, was … well, I’ve already used glorious. My thesaurus suggests synonyms: magnificent, wonderful, splendid, superb. Take your pick, any will do. You might also want to throw in a trace of one-upmanship.

I raced downtown Tuesday from a symposium at the Hammer Museum titled “Wagner in LA: The Opera of the 21st Century?” The talk there was mainly Wagner in Europe, particularly how the composer and his concepts play out at Bayreuth and elsewhere in Germany, where political and cultural context is thick enough to cut with a knife. Every now and then, though, in the Ring Festival’s looking at every aspect of Wagner -- the man, the myth, the meaning, the meanness -- a scholar has simply put a halt to discussion and dissection and said, it’s the music, stupid, the transformation of all else through tone.

Brewer occupies a privileged place in Wagner in LA, having sung Isolde in the L.A. Philharmonic’s famed “Tristan Project” in 2004 and again in 2007, This time she was back in Disney singing proto-“Tristan” music.

The “Wesendonck” Lieder are five love songs Wagner wrote to vacuous poems by Mathilde Wesendonck. The composer was smitten by this impressionable young wife of a patron. Her hokey lines (“Roaring and rushing wheel of time, you are the measurer of Eternity”) were raw material in a roué’s workshop, becoming inspiration for the newly erotic musical language Wagner was developing for “Tristan and Isolde.”

Brewer is the ideal modern Wagnerian soprano. She can unleash thrilling high notes powerful enough to penetrate clichés. She is pure of tone, secure of pitch, an American not enamored of headless vibrato or excessive head tone.

She has a sense of scale. Wagnerian melody flows from her like lava, but she impressed more Tuesday in the subtlety department with her attention to detail. She gave dignity to words not deserving them. She demonstrated through song, more immediately than a Wagnerian can through biography and study, a uniquely cunning composer’s craft of musical seduction.

The “Wesendonck” Lieder were preceded by “Divinités du Styx” (“Almighty Gods of Death!” in the program’s translation) from Gluck’s “Alceste.” Here Brewer’s sense of scale got away from her, as she, not quite warmed up, Wagnerized a classicist. She followed “Wesendonck” with two songs by the treacly 20th century Viennese Romantic Joseph Marx, poor poetry here with predictable music, but gorgeously sung.

After intermission, Brewer presented her more quirky side. She has made a recent specialty of Benjamin Britten’s barely known Cabaret Songs; she recorded them in London two years ago as part of a recital at Wigmore Hall. These are early Britten, with wiseacre Auden texts -- sophisticated, Cole Porterish, funny and also troubling. Each is a tale well and peculiarly told, and Brewer made them live. Three arrangements, afterward, of British folk songs were touching.

As tribute to her great Wagnerian soprano forebearers -- Helen Traubel, Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell and Eleanor Steber -- Brewer concluded with dated, early 20th century songs they sang when they let their hair down just a tad. “Give me hills to climb!/Hills! Hills!/And the strength for climbing,” Traubel once belted to Franck LaForge’s grandiloquent music. This time, Brewer didn’t have Wagner to help, but she did have Rutenberg’s ever solid and sensitive accompaniment.

Brewer is a generous singer. She speaks to the audience with an easy, unforced humor. She turned, twice, at Disney to sing to the orchestra view seats, where she had only been seen from behind.

But Brewer remains an outsider. She is not on the A-list for glamorous new Wagner productions, and most Wagnerians in town passed up a chance to hear one of the great Wagner singers. She has not sung in a “Ring,” and at 54, despite a voice at its prime, may have reached the point in her career where she will stick only with excerpts.

So perhaps now is the time for her turn to an anti-Wagnerian. Her accompanist was close to the American composer Virgil Thomson, and Rutenberg currently is recording his complete piano music. Thomson’s vocal music is neglected and some of America’s best. Like Thomson, Brewer is a Midwesterner. Seems to me from everything I heard Tuesday, they were made for each other.

-- Mark Swed


Complete Times coverage of the 'Ring'

Photo: Christine Brewer accompanied by pianist Craig Rutenberg at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday. Credit: Anne Cusack  / Los Angeles Times