Burning down the house
by James Leonard
The great press notices from the New York Times ("one of the fresher and more imaginative voices on the New York new-music scene") and Opera News ("striking emotional music") are imposing. The great composition teachers Gubaidulina, Crumb, Kurtág, Cage, and Partch are impressive. The great commissions from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra, among others are amazing. But never mind all that. The real question is, how does composer and soprano Susan Botti sound?
When Botti is hot, she is incandescent. Her soprano sears the score, consumes it, and breathes it back as musical fire. And that's when she's singing other composers' material. When she's singing her own music, Botti is transformed from re-creator to the creator of an intense, immensely emotional music. If Botti the performer of Kurtág is utterly convincing, Botti the performer of Botti is ruthlessly compelling.
This is not to say that Botti doesn't have interpretive range. Her voice can be as sorrowful as a sob, as soft as a farewell, and as fine as a line drawn with a sharp knife on the soft skin above the heart. And this is not to say that Botti can't sing lyrically. She is no crooner, but if she has to, she can sing a tune with suppleness, if not exactly elegance. But technique is only part a relatively small part of Botti's performance. The point is emotional display of the rawest and most elemental form. Her art is Dionysian, not Apollonian, and Botti is a bacchante, tearing the emotional flesh from the rigid bones of the score.
On Friday and Saturday, April 4 and 5, Susan Botti will be performing Meredith Monk and György Kurtág works and her own music at Kerrytown Concert House in a recital entitled Scenes and Stories. Sometimes unaccompanied and other times playing with U-M flute professor Amy Porter, U-M harp professor Lynne Aspnes, contrabassist Diana Gannett, and percussionist Jonathan Ovalle, Botti will also bring her unique song styling to works by Tom Waits and Fats Waller. What, one wonders, will "Soldiers' Things" sound like interpreted by Medea and "Jitterbug Waltz" sung by Salome?
[Originally published in April, 2003.]