Frederica von Stade

An Artist Sings Her Goodbye to New York

Published: April 23, 2010

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Published: April 23, 2010
Carnegie Hall was packed on Thursday night for the New York farewell recital of the beloved American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Typically these events are occasions to celebrate an artist’s career, not to assess the actual quality of the performance.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Frederica von Stade with, from left, Martin Katz, Richard Stilwell and Samuel Ramey performing Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” at Carnegie Hall.

Ms. von Stade in her New York farewell recital at Carnegie Hall.

But critical hedges are not really necessary. Naturally, her voice has faded. But in the ways that matter to great vocal artistry, Ms. von Stade, who will turn 65 on June 1, sang beautifully. Accompanied by her partner of 36 years, the pianist Martin Katz, she offered a varied program filled with songs of personal significance. And the qualities that have endeared her to audiences for 40 years — musicianship, sensitivity, dramatic flair balanced by grace and elegance, personal warmth — were still there.

Ms. von Stade introduced her songs with self-effacing biographical stories. Her mother told her that as a baby she had a rosebud mouth, Ms. von Stade said, leading nicely into the first two songs: Ned Rorem’s whimsical setting of Gertrude Stein’s “I Am Rose” and “La Vie en Rose,” made famous by Edith Piaf.

For a while during her childhood Ms. von Stade lived in Greece, she said, a sojourn that she captured in song texts that she wrote, set to music by Jake Heggie, including the jaunty “Paper Wings,” performed here. Her sassy account of “Tout gai!” from Ravel’s “Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques” also fitted the moment perfectly.

Memories of attending Roman Catholic schools in Washington led to Ms. von Stade’s affecting performance of Virgil Thomson’s tender setting of a Kenneth Koch poem, “A Prayer to Saint Catherine,” and to Copland’s “Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?” from “12 Poems of Emily Dickinson.”

The memory-lane concept continued with songs by Poulenc, Mahler, William Bolcom, and more. The composer Lee Hoiby, looking dapper at 84, accompanied Ms. von Stade’s perky performance of “The Serpent,” from “Songs for Leontyne,” which Mr. Hoiby wrote for Leontyne Price.

Two guests, the baritone Richard Stilwell and the bass Samuel Ramey, joined Ms. von Stade in Bernstein’s melancholic song “Some Other Time” (from “On the Town”), here turned into a trio. In Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” at the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Ramey was Figaro to Ms. von Stade’s Cherubino, one of her signature roles. And Mr. Stilwell was Pelléas to Ms. von Stade’s Mélisande in the classic 1978 recording of the Debussy opera conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The Met mounted Jonathan Miller’s 1995 production of “Pelléas et Mélisande” for the 25th anniversary of Ms. von Stade’s company debut, a high point of her career.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” wistfully sung, with an added cello part played by Emil Miland, ended the formal program. Of the four encores one was especially moving. Ms. von Stade was joined by one of her two daughters, Jenny Rebecca Elkus, looking very pregnant: she is expecting a daughter. The mother-daughter duo sang Chris Brubeck’s “Across Your Dreams” in tribute to daughters. It appears that Ms. von Stade will have grandmother duties to keep her busy in retirement.

As her ovation went on and on, the Carnegie ushers did not even try to enforce the no-photographs rule.

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