Even with the diva distractions, Battle’s artistry still shines

Sat Dec 19, 2009 at 3:37 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kathleen Battle performed a holiday program Friday night at the Harris Theater.

Amid the plethora of holiday events this week, for vocal aficionados most interest centered on Kathleen Battle’s concert with the Chicago Children’s Choir, which took place Friday night at the Harris Theater.

Granted, the program was lighter than holiday sponge cake, ranging from spirituals to carols, seasonal pop songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein. But the event afforded the opportunity to encounter the popular if controversial soprano, and she did not disappoint with an entertaining evening that was equal parts Christmas concert and diva performance art.

Clad in black gown with hot-pink wrap, Battle got off to a strange start with an unlisted He shall feed his flock from Handel’s Messiah— normally a welcome bonus, but here rendered in a free-form airport cocktail lounge style with slow, distended phrases that didn’t do Handel any favors. After that single item, she exited before reappearing to begin the program proper.

Her light lyric soprano sounded rather wan in the early selections and one wondered how her slender voice projected up to the back of the vast hall. This is one instance where some discreet amplification might have been a good idea.

Battle’s reputation for shock-and-awe displays of temperament are the stuff of legend, and she provided ample fodder again with fitful on-stage weirdness Friday night.

Just when she appeared to be warmed up vocally and the evening was hitting its stride, Battle herself brought the momentum to a screeching halt. While singing a lovely rendering of Sister Mary Had-a But One Child, she apparently saw someone videotaping the performance in the audience. Battle stepped to the front of the stage and vigorously gestured for them to cease and desist. She continued singing but then shaded her eyes to peer out at the house to see if the activity was continuing. Apparently it was, so she repeated the same semaphore admonishment with vehement intensity.

The song over, she gestured for the kids in the choir to sit and indicated that her pianist should follow her offstage. They exited and the Harris Theater’s curtain warning about cell phones and cameras was played again over the loudspeakers. Battle reappeared to finish the first half, but the air had been let out of the balloon by all this self-defeating silliness and the ensuing Go Tell it on the Mountain was anticlimactic, to say the least. As with decaffeinated coffee, what is the point?

It’s too bad she can’t relax, because at her best Battle can be such a communicative artist. Top notes were largely avoided Friday, yet, at 61, her voice remains an instrument of extraordinary beauty with its bright timbre, gleaming purity, quick, even vibrato and her crystal-clear diction.

Battle is a supreme interpreter of spirituals even if Friday it seemed to take a while for her to get in the zone. With pianist Cyrus Chestnut providing distinctive piano support, highlights included an uptempo jazz version of This Little Light of Mine, and Wade in the Water sung with apt gospel fervor.

Battle can still be a spellbinder when she chooses, and her a cappella rendering of I Wonder as I Wander was the high point of the evening, sung with a simple, heartfelt radiance that was most affecting.

Amid the Christmas medleys and seasonal treacle (The Real Meaning of Christmas a lowlight), Battle displayed some welcome humor and charm, resurrecting the vintage Eartha Kitt novelty hit, Santa Baby, done with sly insinuation and nicely complemented by Chestnut’s teasing piano solo. Her languorous encore of Gershwin’s Summertime provided fine seasonal contrast, and, to her credit, Battle didn’t lose it with an oblivious elderly man laboriously shuffling across the wide front row directly in front of her.

In addition to gamely dealing with the singer’s sudden exits and entrances and repeated emphatic gestures for him to pick up the tempos, Chestnut showed himself a worthy accompanist and jazz pianist of genuine flair. Battle gave him ample opportunities to shine, and Chestnut displayed impressive chops in his vital extempore solos, with the Mozartian introduction to his jazz improvisation on Winter Wonderland a nice touch.

The Chicago Children’s Choir—who actually appeared to be mostly teenagers—showed fine versatility and spirit in their contributions alone and with Battle, the singer at times turning around to vigorously conduct them.

Posted in Performances

5 Responses to “Even with the diva distractions, Battle’s artistry still shines”

  1. Posted Dec 20, 2009 at 9:55 am by David Goodman

    The choir and Mr. Chestnut were entertaining. Kathleen Battle was disappointing and, frankly, weird. It is telling that a substantial number of people fled the Harris Theater as the show progressed. A much better show would have been presented had the diva departed and the choir performed with Mr. Chestnut. The choir and Mr. Chestnut both demonstrated professionalism. And Ms. Battle’s performance was generally spotty and at times downright weak including her performance of Summertime.

  2. Posted Dec 21, 2009 at 11:38 am by Sarah Britton

    I had always wanted to see Ms. Battle in performance and to say I was disappointed is a huge understatement. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Her voice is pretty, for sure, but it lacks power. I wondered if she was just holding back because Chicago is not an audience worthy of giving it her all. I thought the performance boring and underwhelming and her voice sweet but not much else. This is a case of the empress not having much in the way of clothing, although I did like that hot pink wrap.

  3. Posted Dec 22, 2009 at 6:42 pm by Mark Answine

    About 18 months ago Battle performed in Rio de Janeiro with a children’s choir there too. Because many of the children were probably from poor families — many of which had probably never been in Teatro National before — the families were taking lots of photographs. Kathleen Battle was not amused. Several times she chided the audience “no photographs.” She even came out with the theater director who implored the audience to stop. It became quite a ruckus since half the audience wanted the distractions to stop and the other half couldn’t understand why they couldn’t photograph their children on stage. In fairness to Kathleen Battle, the use of photography in the theaters has become a nuisance particularly since it is clearly prohibited. The performers should not have to deal with this. The theater ownership needs to take control.

  4. Posted Jan 06, 2010 at 8:10 am by Laura

    Ms. Battle has always had a “pretty” voice, but lacking in power. She can be delightful or demanding, depending on the circumstances. One should not fault her for refusing to continue when an audience member is illegally videotaping the performance. In fact, I applaud her for doing so. This is not “diva” behavior, but her right to protect what is considered a form of “intellectual property”. In this day of YouTube mania, it’s difficult to discover and stop every listener from infringing on the rights of the performer, and when someone is obviously violating the law, they should be escorted out of the concert hall and the recording device confiscated. End of story.

  5. Posted Jan 12, 2010 at 7:51 am by liberace06

    I was not able to attend the Christmas Concert. However, I attended a similar program in 2007 at The Kennedy Center, with the expectation that it was a lighter fare than the strict recital.

    In 2008, I heard Ms. Battle in recital at Carnegie Hall and it was a glorious occasion. The voice is still beautiful and I hope that you all have an opportunity to hear the formal recital that you so desire to hear. She has several coming up including Carnegie Hall, February 8 2010.

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