Renée Fleming, Benaroya Hall, March 16, 2012

When news hit that Renée Fleming was recording an indie rock album, my first reaction was:


But then I told myself to keep an open mind. It’s not often that an idea as unlikely as this one gets green-lighted, and if Fleming faltered, the album would join a large pile of failed classical crossovers. She didn’t falter, and the album, Dark Hope, became one of my favorite of the year.

When I saw Fleming would perform three tracks from Dark Hope with the Seattle Symphony, I bought tickets, despite some initial reluctance over the price. I wasn’t disappointed.

Of course, I don’t listen to much classical vocal music, let alone opera. So I can’t comment how well she interpreted Maurice Ravel’s Sheherezade, or various arias from Franz Lehár, Charles Gounod  or Erich Korngold.

Fleming, however, is a modern music advocate, probably not as fiercely as Dawn Upshaw, but the program she sang at Benaroya Hall on March 16 included works as recent as 2007. On that, I can comment.

Ricky Ian Gordon’s Night Flight to San Francisco originated from Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. I could feel the bristling of the audience members who disapprove of modern music, but Gordon’s sense of tonality descends more from the lineage of Ned Rorem and David Del Tredici. The audience got off easy, as far as I’m concerned.

More to their liking was John Frazier’s “We Hold These Truths”, an excerpt from a larger work titled Thomas Jefferson: The Making of America. Frazier pretty much played the Aaron Copland hand with the work, using those familiar open fifths and pastoral orchestrations. He did, however, spin an attractive melody out of the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.

To ease the audience into the pop music assault that would assuage its ears, Seattle Symphony conductor Ludovic Morlot programmed overtures by Geroge Gershwin and Jacques Offenbach to bookend the Dark Hope songs. It worked, if the older couple humming along to the Gershwin tunes were any indication.

Fleming started off with her cover of Muse’s “Endlessly”. Throughout the evening, Fleming sang in her upper registers, but when she unveiled her sultry lower range, she became another singer entirely. Yes, I believe that was a tingling I felt on the back of my neck.

The off-stage drummer, however, tended to overpower the orchestra and Fleming herself, even with a microphone in hand. Part of me wonders if these pieces could have been orchestrated without the rock beat. My thinking is pretty narrow on the matter, but if you’re going to have a drum set, you better have the rest of the rock band to go with it.

The drumming was particularly problematic during “Soul Meets Body”, a cover of Death Cab for Cutie. The wordy chorus got swallowed up by a human percussionist trying to replicate a machine loop. The arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” mitigated such problems, allowing Fleming to show off how unjustly under-utilized her pop music voice is.

Perhaps the best indication of how the evening went was the reaction of the couple next to me. They could never be mistaken as the target market for Muse or Death Cab for Cutie, but after Fleming sang the last lines of “Endlessly”, they registered their approval.

Maybe Fleming really is on to something singing music from these young whippersnappers.