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Fete de Frederica

Frederica von Stade and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony

The Centre in the Square

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In Kitchener on Friday

I must have heard plenty of touring opera singers as a teenager in Winnipeg, but I only remember one. It was the 1973-74 season, and a twentysomething mezzo-soprano from New Jersey with the terrific name of Frederica von Stade had flown in to give a recital for the Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg.

No one, as I recall, had heard of the singer, but by the time the evening was over, the invisible walls that separate human hearts from one another had dissolved; hands were furtively brushing tears from eyes, and I reckon that everyone in the intimate recital hall in the Winnipeg Art Gallery knew that we had just had the privilege of hearing an artist on the threshold of a very, very large career. At the same time, the young woman had made us feel that there was no one in the world she would rather be singing to than us.

The passing years have deepened von Stade's artistry, but that generosity of spirit; the humanity, and of course the gorgeous voice, were there from the start.

So anticipation mingled with grief, gratitude and disbelief on Friday night when von Stade stepped onto the stage in Kitchener to launch a farewell tour that will take the singer, now 64, to some of the great cities and halls of the world. That she is also including homey centres like Kitchener gives you the measure of this most undiva-like of stars.

Von Stade has always had an uncanny affinity for French art song, and she was her glorious self in Friday's mostly French program. The first song - Baïlèro , from Joseph Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne - said it all: the warm, round sound that belongs to von Stade alone; the artistry, as the singer languorously suspended the melody over each sensual change of harmony, revealing young love both brave and tender; a love that has all the time in the world, yet does not.

In Connais-tu le pays, from Ambroise Thomas's opera Mignon, von Stade spun the musical line with effortless mastery, in a perfect balance of elasticity and dramatic tension.

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Canadian mezzo-soprano Kimberly Barber joined von Stade for Rossini's comic Cat Duet. But the surprise hit of the evening was Into the Bright Lights, a cycle of three songs by U.S. composer Nathaniel Stookey, to lyrics by von Stade, in which the singer reflects with gentle, often wry honesty on singing and aging. It was a touching farewell, and I loved both music and text. In the first song, S'io, Stookey deftly fused baroque and waltz elements, and added a dash of Phillip Glass. The Golden Thread poignantly turns to the things that truly matter in life - in this case, von Stade's love for her daughter. The cycle closes with a light-hearted, musically lurching look at a day in an opera singer's life.

On its own, the orchestra gave highly enjoyable performances of light French works. Their passionate account of Bizet's Suite No. 1 from Carmen was a standout, thanks to the burnished warmth of the lower strings, and thrilling oboe solos from James Mason. At its best, this orchestra plays like chamber musicians, and conductor Edwin Outwater seemed to encourage that. By the end of the evening, scruffiness in the wind and brass sections was serious enough to distract from the music-making, but the wonderful acoustics of the Centre in the Square were a delight.

Von Stade gives recitals Oct. 10 in Toronto (Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music)

and Feb. 24, 2010, in Calgary

(Jack Singer Concert Hall).

For international dates visit

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http://www.fredericavonstade.com.

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