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Christine Brewer Bewitches at Carnegie Hall

An American Nightingale

By: Susan Hall - 10/15/2009

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The American soprano Christine Brewer performed at Carnegie Hall.
The American soprano Christine Brewer performed at Carnegie Hall.
Brewer is in the great tradition of American sopranos like Eileen Farrell
Brewer is in the great tradition of American sopranos like Eileen Farrell
Eleanor Steber,a Met soprano, performed Cole Porter at the Continental Baths on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Eleanor Steber,a Met soprano, performed Cole Porter at the Continental Baths on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Kirsten Flagstad. Many sopranos claim descent, but few deserve to.  Christine Brewer is among them.
Kirsten Flagstad. Many sopranos claim descent, but few deserve to. Christine Brewer is among them.
Sopranos are often said to sing like nightingales, even though only the male nightingale sings.
Sopranos are often said to sing like nightingales, even though only the male nightingale sings.

Christine Brewer, Soprano
Craig Rutenberg, Piano
Carnegie Hall, Zankel Hall
October 14, 2009
Gluck: Divinités du Styx" from Alceste
Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder, Op. 91
·· Der Engel
·· Stehe still!
·· Im Treibhaus
·· Schmerzen
Richard Strauss: Ich liebe dich," Op. 37, No. 2, "Breit über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar," Op. 19, No. 3 , "Befreit," Op. 39, No. 4
Joseph Marx: Selige Nacht, Hat dich die Liebe beruhrt
Benjamin Britten: Cabaret songs
John Carter: Cantata
American song group

Christine Brewer, a magnificent, home-grown American soprano, performed on October 14 at Carnegie Hall accompanied by the Metropolitan Opera's Head of Music Administration, Craig Rutenberg, partner supreme.  Their program ranged over time, from a Gluck aria to what Ms.Brewer billed as an "echo of nightingales" -- favorite encores of sopranos past in whose company she surely belongs -- Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Eileen Farrell and Eleanor Steber. Early in her career, Brewer had been swept up by Brigit Nilsson and taken for private study.

Craig Rutenberg is a seamless partner and it was not only in the Wagner that music emerged from the walls and into the piano and on to Ms. Brewer's voice and back.  Zankel Hall uses wood extensively to rebound sound.  While Ms. Brewer's voice would shine, even in a rock cave, this venue provides a perfect environment for display of the human voice.  The  unusually rich production in the lower registers is but one of her trademarks.  She has the three top soprano notes often missing even in the greats, and a comfortability about her singing masks all the hard work and the difficulty of performing some of her selections -- particularly Strauss.

Strauss and Wagner are the opera composers with whom she's most closely associated, but she has also performed as Ellen in Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes."  Her take on Britten's cabaret songs, with text by W. H. Auden, was beautiful, fun and sad. In the first song, which takes place going to a railroad station, she actually issued forth a New York style cabwhistle, and then apologized for acting unladylike!  Eleanor Steber was a favorite singing Cole Porter at the Continental Baths on the lower east side of Manhattan where huge palm trees provided a haven for parrots.  Brewer tips her hat to her predecessor in style.

Would Ms. Brewer's voice fit in the Cafe Carlyle? Just as surely as with the Metropolitan Opera.  She is a singer of infinite variety.

Brewer's career has moved forward at an almost leisurely pace, in part because she would not spend extended periods of time away from her family when her daughter was young. She has always taught at local elementary schools and even performed with a youth orchestra in St. Louis, where students were thrilled and inspired. "Someone famous around the world performed with us. So cool."  She has an appealing down home directness.  Although her family complains she's a diva at home (she laughs), she does not bring that attitude to the stage.

The last sequence of songs, she explained, had been introduced by her teacher, who had left her scores, many of which are now out of print. Great divas past had performed these songs as encores: Traubel, "Sing to Me, Sing," "Love Went a Riding," and "Hills"; Flagstad, "Night" (drop dead gorgeous this evening); Farrell, "Hickory Hill"; and Steber, "If I Could Tell You."  Ms.Brewer referred to this group as "An Echo of Nightingales," but it was hardly an echo as our live nightingale brought all her power and glory to the songs.  

Her encores included a vamp in which Ms. Brewer launched a comic take on a diva's Carnegie performance. She had the audience in her thrall, as she wrapped her voice around each note.

One afternoon a while ago the Boston Sympony called.   The "Missa Solemnis" was scheduled for that evening and the soprano had just canceled. They wanted Ms.Brewer.  It was five hours to curtain and Ms. Brewer was at home in smalltown Lebanon, Illinois.  She regretfully said no.  The airport was an hour away. The concert, five hours away.

"I don't see how I can get from Lebanon to Boston with a gown and my voice to perform tonight. I could do the performances the next two days, but tonight is impossible. We do have a tiny airport in town."  The BSO wanted  her and chartered a plane. It was announced before the program began that Ms. Brewer had just arrived in Boston, her only rehearsal was alone on a plane, but she was a trooper and would go on. By all reports she was brillliant -- even at the last minute

This fall, on November 5, she will sing the soprano in Beethoven's 9th with the BSO, an event not to be missed.  Ms. Brewer is truly a national treasure, home-grown.

Reader Comments
From "Gavin"
04-07-2011, 08:07 pm
Hello, unsure of your sources, the Continental baths were in the basement at 2109 Broadway in the Ansonia building. This is in the Upper West side of Manhattan. There were no parrots in the baths (?), rather, it was a gay sex club and bath house. The performances were given to give credibility to the venue and thwart police raids.
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