It was a night of firsts at Oro Valley’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Friday night:
• The first night of the first-ever Tucson Desert Song Festival.
• The first-ever Tucson performance of rising soprano Amber Wagner and the singer’s first-ever public performance of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.
• The Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s first-ever performance of the Wesendonck Lieder and Beethoven’s “Abscheulicher!” from the composer’s only opera “Fidelio.”
Hopefully, this will be the first of many to come, despite the first-time jitters and hiccups that started the night.
• TSO Conductor George Hanson flubbed his introduction of Wagner the composer, mistakenly calling him Richard Strauss.
• Wagner took a few minutes to find her full voice with the beautiful Wesendonck Lieder song cycle.
But Hanson quickly corrected himself and Wagner recovered with tremendous power, sharing an incredible voice that has earned the Phoenix resident regular appearances with Lyric Opera Chicago and the New York Metropolitan Opera.
The Wesendonck Lieder is a set of five gorgeous love songs based on the poems penned by the wife of the composer’s landlord. Mathilde was her name and she and Wagner were quite smitten with one another, although history says they never acted on their infatuation beyond flirting and writing to one another.
Wagner said she fell in love with the songs the minute she heard them and was thrilled when the TSO proposed she sing them for the first time. Perhaps it was the pressure of that first time coupled with the pressure of first impressions that left her sounding a bit unsure of herself out of the gate. She started off too quietly to be fully heard from the balcony; her high notes seemed a bit flat, as if she was testing the hall’s acoustics and couldn’t quite find the balance.
But when she did a few minutes later, Wagner let loose with a voice that sent chills up your spine and raised the hair on your arms. Her crystalline soprano is taut and thrilling at every range. When she hit those high notes, you found yourself holding your breath, and then forgetting to breathe as she soared even higher.
Wagner was even more impressive in the concert’s second half singing Beethoven’s powerful aria from “Fidelio” in a big voice full of vibrant tone and control. She seemed to have found her balance and was more comfortable with the piece, as if she had performed it enough times that it was second nature.
Hanson and the orchestra were also terrific. But we have come to expect great things from Hanson when he is conducting German repertoire, particularly Beethoven. He broke his teeth on this music during his years spent in Germany before coming to Tucson 17 years ago. It’s part of his musical DNA; he appreciates Beethoven’s inclination for bombastic outbursts, but never lets those passages become washed out in noise. His Beethoven feels on the edge of chaos, yet it is deliberate and precise with urgent string passages that stay one step ahead of jumping the cliff and percussive and brass outbursts that capture the emotion without sensationalizing it.
Wagner returns to Tucson next weekend with three other guest soloists to perform Verdi’s Requiem with the TSO.
Friday’s concert, sponsored by the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance, was the first of three that the TSO will perform with Wagner this weekend. Other performances are at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday at Catalina Foothills High School, 4300 E. Sunrise Drive. Tickets: $41 to $51.
Other Song Festival events this weekend:
• Tucson Chamber Artists “Rossini & Brunelle,” featuring guest conductor Philip Brunelle and guest vocalists soprano Maria Jette, alto Lisa Drew, tenor Dan Dressen and baritone Michael Jorgensen. 7:30 p.m. today at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 1200 N. Campbell Ave.; and 3 p.m. Sunday at Desert Hills Lutheran Church, 2150 S. Camino Del Sol in Green Valley. Tickets: $20 and $30 through tucsonchamberartists.org