Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Ravinia Festival, August 5

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Ravinia Festival, July 21

Kathleen Battle is the most universally despised individual in the world of classical music, transcending all lines of gender, ethnicity, and nationality. To know her is to loathe her, and virtually everyone whose professional life has intersected with hers, from the humblest dresser and elevator operator to the loftiest of opera stars and impresarios, has a horror story to tell.

The tales of her viciously loony and unprofessional behavior circulated for years in the business: how she called her manager in New York from the backseat of her limousine and demanded that he call the limo driver and tell him to adjust the level of the air conditioning, how she appropriated another singer’s dressing room and tossed all of the woman’s costumes out into the hall, how she would change hotel rooms because she didn’t like the color of the carpeting or the way people looked at her in the elevator, how she would demand that rehearsals be rescheduled and then not show up. But her outrageousness largely escaped public notice until a couple of seasons ago, when she walked out on the Metropolitan Opera–the nation’s premiere opera company, the company that made and kept her a star–and became persona non grata. Even conductor James Levine–her mentor, promoter, and protector–couldn’t or wouldn’t cover for her this time.

Battle isn’t particularly monstrous by Hollywood or rock standards; she’s never been reported to have set fire to a hotel room, for instance. But her behavior was too much for the classical world, even for musicians accustomed to diva fits. The Met finally fired her openly, and many other opera companies and symphony orchestras have quietly not rehired her. Some singers, including soprano Carol Vaness, have declared to the world that they’ll never work with her again, and many others have said the same thing to their managements. To have one’s own personal Kathy Battle story is a badge of honor akin to a musical Purple Heart, and “I Survived the Battle” T-shirts were coveted souvenirs among her colleagues during one particularly nightmarish production in San Francisco. One opera star is reported to have remarked, “I know a lot of people who would mow down a crowd of pedestrians to get to Kathy Battle.” If she ever turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, the police will have innumerable suspects with superb motives.

Paradoxically, Battle has an army of doting fans. Indeed, one of the best ways to get a flame war going in any on-line music forum is to refer to her in less than glowing terms. There’s a lot of cultish diva worship, but Battle worship isn’t typical. The votaries of Maria Callas and Eva Marton revel in their goddesses’ temperamental ways; Battle’s devotees deny that she’s difficult.

Much of that is due to the role she plays best: cuddly superstar Kathleen Battle, who’s as gracious with her fans as she is unpleasant to her colleagues, greeting admirers backstage after performances, taking time with them, responding to their requests for autographed photos, and bestowing pecks on their cheeks. She projects an extraordinary sweetness onstage and plays only adorable characters. She’s physically attractive, has a ravishing smile, and is always exquisitely dressed.

Yeah, but can she sing?

The answer is yes, within limits. When she first appeared on the musical scene (she debuted at Ravinia in 1974), she offered a combination of devastatingly pure tone, superb legato, fine musicianship, and good looks. In a business that had only belatedly awakened to the fact that some of the world’s best voices belong to blacks, her race was a plus.

But Battle, who reportedly has always required miking at such venues as the Met–something that’s not supposed to happen in opera– never moved beyond the soubrette roles that first made her famous. Musical mannerisms that once seemed fresh and spontaneous began to seem cloying and calculated by the time she’d reached her 40s. Art that doesn’t grow and develop ceases to be art, and Battle now seems stuck in the musical equivalent of a baby-doll dress.

There’s no reason to tolerate the caprices and tantrums of an artist who can’t deliver the musical goods. But there’ve been scattered reports in recent months that Battle is singing better than she has in some time.

She exhibited both her strong and weak points at Ravinia on Saturday night. The program came with a “revised program order” insert: instead of beginning with a trio of Mozart arias and then following with Anne Trulove’s big scene from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progess, she’d reversed the order.

Dressed in a lovely sleeveless black gown, spoiled by several yards of acid-yellow fabric draped over her arms, she constantly distracted us from the music by readjusting the yard goods. At times she seemed about to wrap up the concertmaster’s bow in it.

But she combined a charming stage presence with an outstanding legato line and lovely high pianissimo notes. Unfortunately it’s a small voice, often almost inaudible, even when miked to the point that all breaths were clearly audible. Her sound was monochromatic, with no dynamic range to speak of. Her low notes either display an ugly, ill-conceived chest voice, or are sung in head voice and impossible to hear.

Anne Trulove is sweet and innocent, but there’s considerable steel in her character. Battle demonstrated no steel and turned Stravinsky smarmy. Sopranos such as Ruth Ann Swenson and Dawn Upshaw understand Anne’s gutsiness, but Battle sounded clueless–in fact, all of her selections seemed to showcase the same sweet nonentity.

Mozart is much more in her line, but even these pieces were disappointing. She performed Susanna’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” from Le nozze di Figaro exactly as she’s been singing it for the last 20 years–croon for croon, outstretched arm for outstretched arm, and arched eyebrow for arched eyebrow. It was fine, though nothing unexpected.

However, Mozart’s concert arias are intended for a Countess voice, not a Susanna voice, and Battle was in over her head. She sang “Un moto di gioia” (K. 527) and “Misera, dove son!” (K. 369) precisely as she had the other pieces, with the same crooning and the same nonstop gestures. She was rather like a bit of rooted seaweed swaying back and forth in the tide, though her arms were a bit stiffer for the ostensibly tragic song.

She also offered a lovely, limpid encore in the form of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” Here her lack of character didn’t matter, though her lack of low notes sometimes did.

It was a rather odd decision to combine Battle’s star turn with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the second half of the concert. Many of her fans departed when she did, and others straggled out between symphony movements. Music director Christoph Eschenbach conducted a precise yet sensitive reading of Bruckner’s deeply felt score. No one does this sort of rich Germanic music better than the CSO, though the brass suffered from an unusually high blooper ratio, which detracted from the effect.

Employing singers in symphonies is highly satisfactory to those of us who consider the properly used human voice the most sublime instrument of all. Well-trained voices add a dimension to any style of music, and nothing sounds more ethereal than a chorus that seems to be floating in some temporary portal between heaven and earth. Mere instruments just can’t cut it. All the human emotions–grief, joy, terror, love–are best expressed by the human voice, even when words don’t enter the picture.

But the economics of the music business mean that big choral works are not performed often. Even with an organization like the Chicago Symphony Chorus, in which unpaid amateurs supplement the professional musicians, the costs of rehearsal time, soloists, and paid choristers are too high to make choral compositions favorites with the bean-counting contingent. Blockbusters like Beethoven’s Ninth and the Verdi Requiem may be scheduled as season highlights, accompanied by the appropriate hype, but smaller, quieter, or less familiar works often go unheard. So it was a particular delight to hear two rare treasures at Ravinia in one recent concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: Beethoven’s Fantasia in C for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 2 in B-Flat Major (the Lobgesang).

Beethoven’s remarkably engaging Choral Fantasy is only 20 minutes long, but it nevertheless calls for heroic forces: an outstanding pianist, a sextet of vocal soloists, a large chorus, and a full orchestra. The required expenditure is even more difficult for the check writers because the singers are involved only for about the last four minutes.

For that reason it’s invariably paired with another choral work. Sometimes it’s a curtain-raiser for Beethoven’s Ninth, which it greatly resembles–in fact, the Choral Fantasy is in many ways a study for the Ninth. They have in common a long instrumental lead-in (here featuring the piano), a nifty tune–Beethoven, never as profligate in his melodic inventions as Mozart, has wrung every last possible variation out of this one–and a text that proclaims some great thought, in this case the primacy of music.

At the Ravinia Festival the Choral Fantasy was paired–in an inspired choice–with another work of rational spirituality. Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang also begins with an instrumental prelude to the main vocal action, ten settings of words from the Book of Psalms and Lutheran hymnody. In this case the singing is the primary attraction: solos, duets, and choruses combine with the instrumental writing to produce a phenomenal whole. It seems odd that this was the first time the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had undertaken this magnificent work; I hope it will be repeated soon at Orchestra Hall.

Mendelssohn is an underrated composer today, but his symphonies, incidental music, and oratorios all display a thoughtful romanticism and a gift for casting voices and instruments in interesting ways. He was tremendously popular in the 19th century, in large part because his many smaller works could be performed by nonprofessional musicians, singing and playing in their parlors for their own pleasure. If he’s not a first-rank composer, he’s still high in the second. Maybe it’s time to start booming for a Mendelssohn revival.

The performance two weeks ago would make a good first volley. Riccardo Chailly’s conducting was as usual elegant and graceful, bringing out the thoughtfulness and beauty of Mendelssohn’s writing, which calls for three soloists: two sopranos and a tenor. A grumpy-looking Sharon Sweet seemed disengaged and produced a few sour, sharpish pitches but sang most of her part quite well. Soprano Emily Magee didn’t blend as well as one might have liked in her duet with Sweet–her voice has an edge–yet offered a rich, even tone. Tenor Vinson Cole sang with evangelistic conviction and clarity of tone.

But the evening belonged to the Chicago Symphony Chorus–and their colleagues in the lung-power department, the CSO brass and woodwinds. Under the direction of Duain Wolfe, the chorus has become a more subtle and flexible instrument. The singing and phrasing were stunning throughout, nowhere more than in the flawless unaccompanied first verse of the chorale section, Nun danket alle Gott: precisely in tune, the breaths just so. It was a knockout moment.

The Choral Fantasy, which opened the evening, featured pianist Peter Serkin. I’m used to his father Rudolf’s recordings, and some of the tempi of Serkin fils seemed a bit idiosyncratic. But it all worked. The boyish, bespectacled Serkin plays with great verve and technical expertise, and appeared to be having an absolutely splendid time.

The chorus in the Choral Fantasy was impeccable, and the six fine soloists drawn from the chorus deserve mention: sopranos Amy Pickering and Mary Jane Endicott, whose bright voice dominated the sextet; contralto Diane Busko-Bryks; tenors Kevin McKelvie and David Anderson; and bass Matthew Greenberg. They also deserved a front-of-the-stage bow, but didn’t get one. Most of them were invisible to the house during the performance, stuck behind the raised lid of the piano. Even if there were artistic reasons to have them sing in back with the chorus, it was tacky to leave them there for the applause.