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PSO, Portland blessed by concert offered by a world-class talent

Soprano Renee Fleming's voice and personality filled hearts and souls along with a concert hall.

This is a diva column. The Obama stimulus package's implications for Maine can wait. Renee Fleming is center stage.

I attended her benefit concert for the Portland Symphony last Tuesday. It was a transcendent moment.

Because my wife, Sally, and I are season ticket holders to the PSO, we were able to sit in on the rehearsal of Fleming and the PSO on Monday evening.

This gave us an up-close and personal view (we were in the second row) of the artist in her first experience with the Portland Symphony.

She is not just a world-class soprano. She is also a natural and engaging woman.

PSO Maestro Robert Moody, obviously a bit apprehensive in his first encounter with Fleming, was soon charmed by her easy manner and obvious love of the music. Sulky moments are decidedly not part of the Fleming repertoire.

She is studious, attentive to detail and quick to praise her colleagues. By the end of the rehearsal, two things were clear: She is a major talent and a special person.

In the Q&A session that followed the rehearsal, Fleming fielded questions, mostly from a large contingent of University of Southern Maine music majors who had been invited to share the special occasion.

She was particularly good at relating to the students, volunteering that she was the daughter of two high school music teachers who grew up in the company of students who were at the house for their music lessons.

She also noted how she juggled her work and travel schedule around her two teenage daughters.

She cautioned the students not to be too hard on themselves, to understand that the perfect performance was an impossible dream.

The really important thing, she noted, is to put heart and soul into every performance.

At the actual concert on Tuesday, Fleming clearly took her own advice on the "heart and soul" part. She opened with Richard Strauss's famous "Four Last Songs."

She said these were among her favorite works and probably her most performed. These are lovely, unadorned pieces.

She was intimate with the music, yet so open in sharing it with us in the audience that hearts were melting all over the Merrill.

Perhaps the most moving piece in the concert was a song written especially for her, "A Letter from Sullivan Ballou." They are the last words of a Civil War soldier on the eve of a battle he did not survive. Ms. Fleming told his poignant story with quiet passion and great dignity.

After intermission, Fleming changed pace to feature several American traditional songs.

She finished with a rousing rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady. Believe me, Julie Andrews never sounded this good.

She brought down the house – and a very full one it was. As I said, this was a benefit for the PSO endowment fund. The concert was a great success and added a significant amount to an endowment that, like many others, has been battered by the current economy.

For Sally and me, it was a special reminder of the power of music to soothe one's soul.

This is a time when the PSO, like many arts organizations, is struggling to adapt to funding and endowment declines. Just a couple of weeks ago the symphony announced programming and personnel cuts to help survive these difficult times.

The irony is that the orchestra is thriving musically. As Fleming's concert demonstrated, this is an orchestra that can hold its own with the best talent in the classical music world.

In his inaugural season as music director, Moody brings energy, passion and megawatt charm of his own. The orchestra is responding with some of its best performances in the 20 years we have been going to these concerts.

The Portland Symphony is one of the foundations of the rich cultural life of the city. Yet, we cannot take it for granted.

The PSO needs our support now more than ever. If you haven't seen the orchestra this season, please consider catching a concert (schedule at www.portlandsymphony.com). If you have been to a concert, please consider one of the subscription series.

Sally and I left the concert last Tuesday feeling that we had experienced one of our more special moments likely in this lifetime.

Does this happen at every PSO concert? There is only one way to find out.