In performance: Battle with the BSO
Battle unsettled, but still comes through on top
by Joe Banno
No one sounds quite like Kathleen Battle. This lyric soprano was a fixture at international opera houses and a best-selling classical recording artist during most of the 1980s and ’90s, thanks to her silvery, strikingly beautiful upper register and her affectionate way with phrasing.
Battle’s recordings and public performances have grown rarer of late, but her concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore on Thursday showed the 61-year-old soprano’s high notes to be gloriously intact.
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The program, entitled “Underground Railroad: An Evening With Kathleen Battle,” offered a set of spirituals in glossy, orchestral-pops arrangements, punctuated by readings of Frederick Douglass by former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. Conductor Damon Gupton and the BSO opened the concert with a beautifully poised reading of music from William Grant Still’s “Africa,” and the Morgan State University Choir contributed richly blended, satisfyingly robust work throughout the program.
But the evening was about Battle. She appeared unsettled onstage (fumbling with a pitch pipe, restarting selections because of ringing cellphones, insisting that initial notes be given and regiven to the chorus), and time has taken a toll on her now papery and less substantial middle and lower registers. But, especially in warmly affecting, a cappella renditions of “Over My Head” and “Fix Me, Jesus,” the purity and luster of her upper voice was simply ravishing, seemingly unchanged since her heyday. The concert proved a rare opportunity to bask in an inimitable sound that’s too little heard these days.
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