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ON-THE-RISE SOPRANO WILL OPEN QRS RECITAL SERIES

The reorganized QRS Recital Series has corralled a winner to open its 1996-97 season, the meteorically rising soprano Renee Fleming.

This ought to be incentive enough to bring a big crowd out to her recital, which will be at 3 p.m. next Sunday on the Mainstage at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on the North Campus.

But in scanning Fleming's program, announced last week, I noticed that its centerpiece will be a new work that should have universal appeal well beyond the large assembly of lovers of art songs and lieder who usually flock to recitals of this sort.

The new work is "A Letter From Sullivan Ballou," written for Fleming by John Kander.

Many will remember vividly the episode in the epic PBS series produced by Ken Burns, "The Civil War," in which was read a touchingly eloquent letter by Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Union Army, written to his wife, Sarah, on the eve of the first Battle of Bull Run, from which he never returned.

The letter's profession of deathless love and memories of blissful moments, joined with profound declarations of patriotism, combined to make those few minutes a deeply moving experience.

But when you add to that Jay Ungar's accompanying violin, playing his folksily poignant "Ashokan Farewell," the assault on viewers' emotions was almost too much to endure. If there was a dry eye, anywhere, watching the TV screen at that moment, it must have been controlled by a heart of stone.

The thought of this experience being further extended by being set as an art song sent me scurrying for more information on the whys and wherefores of this musical transformation. I got my answers from Merle Hubbard, Fleming's former manager and longtime confidant.

"When Renee won the Richard Tucker Award," Hubbard explained, "part of the prize was the commissioning of a new work for her by John Kander, better-known as the composer of such successful Broadway musicals as 'Cabaret.'

"He set the rather extended text with some lines spoken, some sung, and I think he really captured the spirit of the letter as it was originally delivered in the 'Civil War' series. In talking with me about it later, Kander told me that it had really unleashed a devil in him."

Born in Rochester, Fleming received music degrees from the State University at Potsdam and the Eastman School of Music, then made her debut with the Virginia Opera in "Carmen" in 1986.

Considering that was just 10 years ago, hers has truly been a phenomenally fast ascent, because prestigious debuts came along very rapidly: Spoleto in 1987, New York City Opera in 1989, Royal Opera House/Covent Garden also in 1989, Seattle Opera in 1990, and the biggie, the Metropolitan Opera in 1991.

Other notable awards that greased the skids along the way were the George London Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany, a Grand Prix at the International Singing Competition in Belgium and the first Solti Prize of l'Academie du Disque Lyrique, which recognized her as one of the most outstanding singers of the younger generation of recording artists.

Just last month Fleming's new recording of Mozart arias, "Visions of Love," was released, and within a week was up to No. 8 on the Billboard classical charts.

For her QRS recital Renee Fleming will be partnered by pianist Helen Yorke in a program of German lieder and French and Spanish art songs.

There will be six Schubert lieder, including the always popular "Der Tod und das Maedchen" (Death and the Maiden) and "Gretchen am Spinnrade" (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), plus the lesser-known delight "Im Fruehling" (In Springtime). Four by Richard Strauss will follow, including "Muttertaendelei" (Mother-love) and "Caecilie" (Cecily).

After Kander's "A Letter From Sullivan Ballou," the recital will conclude with five songs by Gabriel Faure, including the exquisite "Apres un reve" and Joaquin Turina's "Tres Poemas," Opus 81, whose individual titles in English are "Giant waves," "Your eyes are blue" and "The gentle breeze."

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