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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Underground Railroad: The Return of Kathleen Battle

By Joseph So on May 30, 2016

The evergreen American soprano remains magical in a program of spirituals.

Kathleen Battle (Photo: Douglas Foulke)
Kathleen Battle (Photo: Douglas Foulke)

Kathleen Battle (soprano) with Joel A. Martin (piano) and The Nathaniel Dett Chorale; Kerry Lee Crawford and Lee Ann Mercury (Narrators) at Roy Thomson Hall. May 29.

One of the highlights of the 2015-16 vocal season came at the very end, at Roy Thomson Hall this afternoon, with the return of American soprano Kathleen Battle to Toronto after an absence of many years. In her prime, she possessed one of the most beautiful light lyric soprano voices I’ve heard. I vividly recall driving from Toronto to Cleveland way back in 1983 to catch her sing Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier with the Metropolitan Opera on tour. The Marschallin was Elisabeth Söderström, Octavian was Frederica von Stade, with James Levine conducting. Talk about a dream team!  Well, the stars were aligned that evening – it was an unforgettable experience.

From that point on, I tried to catch Battle in as many performances as I could. Managed to see her Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, plus several recitals over the years. And of course plenty of CDs and videos.  I was never disappointed – her voice, remarkable for its beauty, warmth, focus and purity, was always a pleasure. By the mid 90’s, after her dismissal by the Met, there were fewer opportunities to hear her, although I do recall one recital at the George Weston Hall in North York in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. That might have been the last time she sang in Toronto.

When it was announced that she was returning to Toronto with this special program of American spirituals, I was a bit torn. Should I go and risk being disappointed?  At an age (67) when most classical singers would have retired, can Battle still perform at a high level?  Can she turn back the clock?  I went to Roy Thomson Hall this afternoon with some trepidation. The venue, at a capacity or 2,630, is not ideal for her modest sized instrument. I noticed that the balcony level was empty, likely closed off to create a more intimate atmosphere. It was not a large crowd, but enthusiastic, knowledgeable, attentive and respectful of the music and the artists onstage.

Since this was a concert exploring traditional slave spirituals and the writings of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Battle was joined by the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, as well as two narrators. When the soprano came out, there was a spontaneous standing ovation, something I couldn’t recall experiencing before in Toronto. When she opened her mouth to sing “Lord, How Come Me Here?” it’s as if she has indeed turned back the clock. The trademark warmth, purity, focused tone that were hers are all there, with no hint of wobble, tremolo, slow vibrato, or any other vocal ills. If anything, she sings with less vibrato than I remembered, probably a choice given the material. The timbre is remarkably youthful and natural. There is, however, some diminution of volume. The top half of her range is particularly lovely, while the lower reaches don’t project as well. To be honest, if I hadn’t known beforehand, I would never have guessed that the singer is 67 years old.

I did notice that there weren’t any of the stratospheric high notes for which Battle was famous – I think the highest note all afternoon was a high B, which she touched several times. She chose not to interpolate any high notes. But she deftly combined the beauty of tone and attention to textual meaning, not to mention the requisite “swing” in the jazzier arrangements. She was ably supported by the marvellous Nathaniel Dett Chorale, with several of their choristers singing solo passages, quite beautifully I might add.  Battle’s pianist was Joel A. Martin, who has an awesome technique and he gave a dazzling display of jazz piano prowess. No wonder – he was only 17 when he competed in the 1984 Van Cliburn Competition.

The program consisted of some very famous spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” as well as a few less familiar ones. The audience really got into it with modest clapping, although I must say Canadians are famously reserved. In Stateside, this concert would have resembled a revival meeting!  No review of Kathleen Battle is complete without addressing her onstage idiosyncrasies. Always warm and smiling towards the audience, but she’s also (in)famous for the peculiar habit of constantly talking and giving instructions to her pianist. Well, things haven’t changed much. This afternoon, she was giving instructions to the choral director, the two narrators, and at one point rearranging the choristers in one song, and practically conducting the chorus in another number. That said, I must also mention that Battle generously and graciously shared the curtain calls and the audience accolades with her pianist, the Chorale and its director as well as the two narrators. All in all, it was an inspired afternoon of music-making.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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