The Reading Symphony Orchestra opened their 2021-22 season Friday evening at the Santander Performing Arts Center in Reading featuring legendary soprano Renée Fleming as guest artist. Conducted by Music Director Andrew Constantine, the program highlighted works from classical music, opera and Broadway.
“He’s wonderful,” Fleming said about Constantine. “He’s a terrific musician. The city’s fortunate to have him.”
The RSO also performed some instrumental pieces, including Richard Strauss’ feverish “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salomé” and the Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’ “Samson and Delilah.”
Like all RSO season openers, the first piece performed was the Star-Spangled Banner.
“There must be something in the water in Pennsylvania,” Fleming told the audience. “I heard you sing the National Anthem, that was some serious singing.”
The rest of the repertoire was a lovely retrospective of every artist’s worst nightmares. There was the coming to grips with mortality in Strauss’ Four Last Songs, the slim chances of one’s work achieving immortality (the program notes used all-but-forgotten 19th-century composer Friedrich von Flotow as evidence of this) and the fear of being overshadowed (as Leoncavallo’s version of “La Boheme” was by Puccini’s).
The most interesting piece of the evening was “And the People Stayed Home,” a musical setting of a COVID-themed poem by Kitty O’Meara that went viral in 2020. The music was written by composer John Corigliano specifically for Fleming, and she performed it without any instruments other than her own voice.
In the quiet concert hall, the song became a hymn, a prayer reverberating through the cavernous Santander Performing Arts Center. Fleming has spent years using the Kennedy Center and National Institute of Health’s Sound Health initiative to raise awareness about music’s power to heal, and how it affects the brain.
For these efforts, she received Research!America’s Isadore Rosenfeld Award for Impact on Public Opinion on March 11, 2020. Two days later, COVID-19 was declared a national emergency.
“We had this outpouring of creativity from people at home, wanting to connect with other people,” Fleming said, “and music was the way to connect. There were concerts on balconies, on rooftops.”
In Fleming’s presence, everything was larger than life. The SPAC was bigger, the ceiling higher than ever before. The uproarious applause was not just for her singing, but for the fact that she was there at all, that the People’s Diva was before them in the flesh in Reading, PA.