Sandra Lopez opens Festival Miami on a wave of song

By Lawrence Budmen

Sandra Lopez performed music of Poulenc and Strauss to open the Frost School of Music's Festival Miami Friday at Gusman Concert Hall.

A varied program of orchestral, choral and solo vocal music made a winning opener for this year’s installment of Festival Miami Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall, with Sandra Lopez’s stirring performance of Poulenc’s Gloria the high point of a concert that proved festive indeed.

Francis Poulenc was a member of Les Six, the group of French composers that fused elements of music hall and popular culture into their classical creations. Following World War II, however, he turned increasingly to sacred and dramatic themes, producing such masterpieces as the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites.

The Gloria was composed in the 1950’s on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. An iconic score that combines gossamer, almost Impressionistic harmonies with quirky bursts of neo-Classicism, the Gloria is a moving testament to Poulenc’s highly personal brand of devout Catholicism.

Lopez, a UM alumna who has sung at the Metropolitan and major European opera houses, channeled her sizable voice to expressive effect. The ease of her upper register and soft, ethereal tonal shadings culminated in a soaring Agnus Dei. Choral director Joshua Habermann led the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra, Frost Chorale and Frost Symphonic Choir in a buoyant performance, achieving fine balance and articulation from the large choral forces and incisive, precise playing from the chamber orchestra. The gleaming transparency of the fine string section and strong solo trumpet were standouts in a fine ensemble effort.

Habermann opened the concert with Hymn to the Sun by the tragically short-lived Lili Boulanger. This inventive 1912 score looks backward to Renaissance harmonies and forward to the repetitive choral rhythms of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Habermann maintained driving momentum and drew particularly strong vocalism from the male voices. Paul Schwartz was the capable piano accompanist in this choral gem, the work of a compelling creative voice that was silenced too soon at age twenty-five.

Thomas Sleeper took the podium for the second half of the evening, leading a high voltage account of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture. The warm and varied string sonority and throbbing brass brought this Francophile portrait of an Italian celebration to vivid life. Only some tentative, ill tuned wind playing kept this sizzling performance from reaching the heights.

After a somewhat murky account of the opening Spring, which was burdened by a pronounced vibrato, Lopez sailed through the rest of Strauss’ Four Last Songs. The soprano produced a gleaming lyrical line in September and finely spun, long limbed phrases in the weary finality of Going to Sleep, aided by the nostalgic yearning of Luis Fernandez’s sweet-toned violin solo.

Lopez captured the autumnal sadness of At Sunset in glowing tones, capping a deeply felt traversal of Strauss’ musical last will and testament.. Sleeper eloquently shaped Strauss’ rich orchestral fabric with a knowing hand, drawing nuanced and full-bodied playing from his strong student ensemble.

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Sat Oct 9, 2010
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