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Friday, January 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Soprano’s Technique Shines Complex, Poetic Language Rates Vocal Interpretation

By Travis Rivers Correspondent

Spokane Symphony Sunday, Nov. 5, at The Met The concert will be repeated tonight at 7:30 at The Met.

Theresa Santiago seems well on her way to a fine career. Her performance of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Spokane Symphony at The Met Sunday made for a deeply touching experience. That moment of awestruck audience hush at the end of the Barber, before applause began, illustrated that I was not the only one so moved.

The 26-year-old American soprano was singing the Barber work for the first time Sunday. Even on her first outing with the piece, Santiago’s qualities made Barber’s setting of James Agee’s words glow with all their nearly-sentimental nostalgia.

The text of the work is Agee’s autobiographical essay about his Tennessee childhood told from the point of view of a child. “Knoxville” requires a singer prepared to grapple with Agee’s agreeably complex, often alliterative poetic language as well as with Barber’s beautifully shaped vocal lines.

Santiago possesses a voice of great purity of tone and an ear for accurate intonation - the very qualities one expects from a graduate of a major music school and a winner of such competitions as the Naumburg.

Santiago’s real qualities shine through, though, in matters that go beyond a beautiful voice used with solid technique. Her sensitivity to words lead to a clear diction that enabled those words to be understood almost always. And her musical sensitivity allowed her to project the feeling behind those words, even when the orchestra grew too loud for words to be clearly heard.

One of the work’s climactic moments is the anguished outburst that follows Agee’s matter-of-fact description of his family sitting on quilts, talking in the backyard’s evening heat: “Here they are,” he writes, “all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth … among the sounds of night.”

The words were lost, but the pain was clear.

Guest conductor Patricia Handy, though sensitive to Barber’s orchestral colors, encouraged the players occasionally to produce more sound than Santiago (or Barber) needed. But I was grateful for Handy’s lively spoken comments before the piece. She cleared up a couple of textual mysteries in Agee’s vocabulary and imagery.

Following intermission, Santiago sang the Countess’s aria “Dove sono” from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” For now, she is better-suited in lightness and clarity for Mozart’s saucy soubrette roles - the Susannas and Despinas. She has the intelligence and skill for the Countess, but not yet the darkness or vocal heft.

Those will come in good time.

For the orchestral portion of the program, Handy began with Carl Nielsen’s youthful Little Suite for Strings and closed with Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony. The large gestures of Handy’s conducting tend to elicit robust playing from the orchestra - fine for the stormy moments in the finale of the “Linz,” less apt for the elegance of its slow movement or the light-hearted exuberance of Nielsen’s suite.

Wordcount: 498

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