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They keep on rollin' along



Since the late 1980s, when Samuel Ramey established his dominion over the bass and bass-baritone repertoires, all those who aspired to the same throne had to sigh and wait their turn. Well, after last week's Frederica von Stade & Samuel Ramey recital, presented at the Belk by the Carolinas Concert Association, I can offer operatic scavengers a whiff of hope. Their day is coming.

But it ain't here yet.

There's plenty of hoarfrost on the roof these days, yet it's still a majestic mane. When Ramey ventures into his highest octave, he often straddles notes he used to hit cleanly, and there's a wobble as wide as the Missouri. But the distinctively rich voice can still fill the hall as few ever have, and when he launched into Jerome Kern's "Old Man River," the extra mileage on the aging larynx was, on balance, to his advantage.

Face it, when Ramey sings this grand old American anthem in the third person, we're hearing him in the first person. Nor did age stand between him and compelling renditions of the satanic trilogy he opened with ñ arias from La damnation de Faust, Faust, and Mefistofele. Ramey's mocking laugh still wells up from a lake of fire.

Age is more devastating on a mezzo's options, even when she's a Frederica von Stade, with a range crossing the boundaries of gender into the great trouser roles of Mozart and Strauss. In recital, however, she can turn back the clock convincingly in the lovely "Connais-tu le pays?" from Mignon without the need of cloaking herself in pitiable, wide-eyed naÔvetÈ.

Individually or together, von Stade and Ramey can still summon vast reserves of charm. A hint of the voltage came early with von Stade's jocund delivery of Offenbach's "Ah, que j'aime les militaires" -- with a snatch of the "Marseillaise" worked into Martin Katz's mischievous keyboard accompaniment. The humorous sparks really flew as Ramey and von Stade got down and barnyard silly in Copland's "I Bought Me a Cat" just before intermission. By the time that gem was over, I had a new respect for the cat's insouciant "fiddle-eye-dee."

With language barriers tossed aside, the duo could be thoroughly personable as Tin Pan Alley prevailed in the second half of the program. We didn't always get all the stanzas penned by the Gershwin brothers during the seven-song medley, but we were treated to full helpings of the introductory verses ñ a couple of them quite rare -- and a special "Carolina in the Morning" detour near the end of the "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" duet.

Even more delectable was the "Old Fashioned Wedding" duet from Annie Get Your Gun, where both singers could show off their acting chops in headstrong fashion. Von Stade was at her soloing best in Sondheim's wistful "Send in the Clowns," while Ramey gilded everything he touched, triumphing over Katz's wretched accompaniment to "They Call the Wind Maria" -- a clear signal that he had more than enough in reserve for "Old Man River."

That isn't an encore anybody can top. Sensibly, neither tried. Instead, Ramey and von Stade came out jointly and sang a cute goodbye.

Three summers ago, when Sue and I were in Edinburgh for the International and Fringe Festivals, we missed our chance to attend the nightly Military Tattoo. So when the pipes, drums and Highland dancers of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards marched into the Belk last Monday, I was determined not to miss out.

Sue, on the other hand, had no such determination and stayed home. Not a bad choice.

Dressed in bright red uniforms, plaid kilts, black fur hats at least twice the volume of their heads, and the necessary kit of sporrans, leggings, ribbons, sashes, and instruments -- brass, drums, cymbals, saxophones, and penny whistles -- the regiment arrived in two elaborate stages, played two national anthems, and established an atmosphere of marmoreal pomp. It's the sort of thing that could work nicely late on an August evening in front of an ancient spotlit castle. After a couple of pints of ale.

Likewise, the disembodied voice announcing various segments of the program seemed more attuned to an outdoor stadium than a concert hall. Late in the second half, the PA feed temporarily conked out, yielding an unforeseen revelation: when a bandleader dressed in one of those huge black cone hats feels that he must turn and look for some indication about what the hell is going on, he appears incredibly dopey. Keeping your baton raised does not preserve your dignity.

Of course, we all wouldn't have laughed if the Dragoons and Her Majesty's Coldsteam Guards hadn't been so precisely drilled all evening long. I do mean long. The ensembles played or danced to 38 tunes before joining us out in the lobby -- for intermission! To my surprise, I found myself warming to the music after the halftime mixer. Bagpipes and drums on "Caledonian Society of London," "Ashley's Thinning Napper," "Fanny Power," and the familiar "Scotland the Brave" brought back fond recollections of Edinburgh, the Isle of Skye, and the Scottish countryside.

"Highland Laddie" brought back less pleasant memories of my struggles with the Highland fling throughout rehearsals of Brigadoon, my first role in a musical. The fling won, sending me to an ER down in Columbia. It isn't nearly as easy as it looks.

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