Renée Fleming, Osmo Vänskä, and the Minnesota Orchestra

Renée Fleming is coming to Orchestra Hall! She’s an absolute superstar—I mean, did you see her performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at last year’s Super Bowl?— and the chance to see a singer of her talent live and in-person makes this an absolute must-see event.

But for me, there is another reason why I’m so excited to attend this concert. Several years ago, I had another chance to attend one of her concerts, and it was an experience I treasure to this day. And I have to say, it was not just her incredible artistry, but also her incredible humanity that turned me into a life-long fan.

The performance was September 11, 2002, and I remember every part of it. Vividly.

* * *

For most of that day—for most of that week, really—I was in a dark mood. It was one year after the horrific terrorist attack on 9-11, and the country was still taking stock of what had happened. And as the one-year anniversary approached, all the raw feelings of that tragic day had begun to resurface.

The Minnesota Orchestra, like so many other groups around the county, chose to honor those who fell that day with a special commemorative concert; and to my surprise the Orchestra announced that Renée Fleming would be the featured guest artist. Already by that time, Renée was a superstar. Given her stature, I was sure she could have performed in New York proper, or possibly given a public concert on the Mall in Washington D.C. as Marian Anderson had done so many years ago. But of all her many possible options, she came to Minneapolis to join the Orchestra in its commemorative concert.

And it really was a concert, in the best of all possible senses. One of the great dangers of this kind of event is that the featured guest star can have too much prominence, essentially upstaging the event at hand.

But that was not what happened that night.

Conductor Yakov Kreizberg led the Orchestra in a deeply moving performance of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations as the concert opener. This haunting work, and the long moment of absolute silence that followed it, set the stage for Renée, who came out to deliver Richard Strauss’s magisterial Four Last Songs.

I can’t imagine how hard it was for her to take the stage… for everyone in that Hall, the memories were raw and nearly overwhelming. But she did the remarkable. With elegance and serenity I cannot begin to describe, she strode to take her place. Her expression, her bearing all commanded our attention… but that was nothing compared to what happened when she began to sing.

She had us. Completely.

Her voice enveloped us with beauty I cannot describe. We were spellbound as she gave an astonishing rendition of Strauss’ music, filling the songs with a sense of loss, hope and unfathomable wisdom that I’ve never heard since. It was not art for art’s sake; through music, she gave us peace.

It is rare to see a performer so thoroughly command a room like that—not from power or vocal fireworks, but from elegance and light. But that is exactly what she did, and by the time the music finally died away we had gone on an incredible healing journey together. And I tell you everyone in that room loved her for taking us with her on that journey.

But there was a surprise. Given the overwhelming audience reaction when she was finished, she agreed to perform one last piece: “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (“The Song of the Moon”) from Antonin Dvořák’s opera, Rusalka. In this song, the water-nymph Rusalka confesses to the moon that she is in love with a mortal prince. It is moltenly beautiful, and one of Renée’s signatures. Although nominally about unrequited love, in the context of that commemorative concert the song took on a broader meaning to become a delicate prayer of memory, and a song of hope:

O moon,
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!

A perfect, gentle finale.

All in all, it was a magical evening, held together by incomparable artistry that showed the power of music to heal and bring us together.

But in reflecting on the event, the most impressive part of all wasn’t her artistry… it was the way her humanity came shining through. There was no hint of an operatic diva, just a warm-hearted fellow human who used her gifts to bring about a perfect moment of reflection and healing. I am firmly convinced that it is that humanity which makes her opera roles so compelling, and elevates her artistry to such an astonishing level.

* * *

And now she’s coming back. And I can hardly wait.

Renée will be joining Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra for A Starry, Starry Night, on September 5 at Orchestra Hall. This is a benefit concert to help the Orchestra start its new season on solid financial ground.

And as my readers know, this is a cause near and dear to my heart. Back a few months ago, when we as a community helped pull the Orchestra back from the brink of destruction, I vowed I would do everything I could to help it thrive… and buying tickets to this benefit concert is a great way for me to honor that pledge. In fact, it feels like I’m cheating—this concert will be far, far too good to pass up on its own! But throw in the chance to give extra financial support to one of my favorite ensembles? You better believe I snapped up my tickets the minute the website went live!

Don’t miss your chance to do the same. I understand that there are still $100 tickets available at the Orchestra’s website, and I urge you to quit reading right now, follow this link, and grab them. You will not regret it—you will see an astonishing artist who is at the height of her abilities, and an astonishing conductor who is so loved and respected by our community that we refused to let him go. And of course, you will hear an astonishing Orchestra made up of some of the finest musicians—and people—I am privileged to know. This is great music for a great cause.

See you there!




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