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concert review

Sondra Radvanovsky at Koerner Hall.

Is the vocal recitalist the loneliest person in classical music? Maybe. Other soloists have their instrument as companion, prop, or security blanket. But if you're a singer, you are your instrument. Even with a friendly accompanist sitting at a nearby piano, there's really nothing on stage but you.

If dropped-from-heaven soprano Sondra Radvanovsky felt any such anxiety in Koerner Hall before her recital on Friday night, it was dispelled by her breezy, wave-at-the-audience, open, Midwestern entrance. Radvanovsky had us at our ease before she sang a note, and then proceeded to deliver a stunning, stupendous program that reminded us why she is a once-in-a-generation vocal supernova.

Music can affect us many ways, but Radvanovsky reminds us that power is one of them. Not that Radvanovsky ever abuses the sheer heart-stopping volume of her amazing voice. Control – artistry – is central to everything she does. And Radvanovsky can make an impossibly small and gorgeous sound when the music demands it, throttling back her full-bodied soprano to a whisper in a thrilling instant, just one of her aesthetic surprises.

But when Radvanovsky is in full voice, as she was at the close of the final work on her program, an aria from Giordano's Andrea Chénier, it seemed the entire hall was vibrating in sympathy, a whole building, with us in it, physically moving in resonance with her voice.

But Radvanovsky, for all her vocal power, is an artist above all else, that is, a communicator of musical and lyrical emotion. The colours of her instrument are wide and varied, with a dark, smoky hue at the low end counterpointed by a silvery, clarion top. And her artistic range is no less impressive.

She could be alternately playful and austere as she was in a selection of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, providing a wink at her superb accompanist Anthony Manoli as she ended The Monk And His Cat with the words, "How happy we are, alone together, scholar and cat." She could be dramatic as only the Baroque understood drama in Vivaldi's Sposa son disprezzata, "I am a scorned wife," romantic and meltingly gorgeous in Franz Liszt's settings of Victor Hugo's poetry.

But perhaps the most interesting section of Radvanovsky's program were four songs by Richard Strauss, including the famous Morgen, Morning. Radvanovsky doesn't sing much German, as she noted, with her expressive voice and temperament so perfectly suited to the bel canto Italian operatic repertoire. And that has denied her, and us, access to much of classical music's lieder repertoire – music by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms.

But, despite the sense of her launching into uncharted waters, her Strauss songs were deeply affecting. There is something in the multi-hued vocal spectrum of Radvanovsky's voice that absorbs the harmonically-tortured, expressionistic aura of Strauss's songs perfectly, a German inwardness that complements her ebullient artistic personality remarkably well.

However, it was in the bel canto repertoire, the Chenier at the end of the program, and three Bellini songs in the middle, where Radvanofsky was most securely at home. This daughter of the U.S. Midwest, born outside of Chicago, transplanted through marriage to Canada, exudes the extroverted generosity and theatricality that is at the heart of the Italian operatic spirit. She is fearless when necessary, open and powerful at one moment, quiet and serene the next, an artist in more or less complete control over both the physical and aesthetic aspects of her craft.

And a special word needs to be said for the "cat" to her "scholar," her coach and accompanist Manoli. He provided her the most secure foundation all night, coaxing tone colours from his instrument that matched hers, and with an articulate, intelligent phrasing that was her equal.

To get home to write this review, I left the Radvanovsky recital after its first encore, a stunning Song to the Moon, from Dvorak's Rusalka, as her ecstatic Koerner Hall audience called out selection after selection they wanted her to sing. As far as I know, they're all still there, with an exultant Sondra Radvanovsky emulating Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall in 1961, calling out to her adoring fans, a la Garland, " I know. I know. I'll sing them all, and we'll stay all night."

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