Masters of Voice and Piano at The Gilmore

On Saturday, May 27, Kalamazoo’s Chenery Auditorium will welcome to its stage two world-renowned musicians: soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Evgeny Kissin. Audience members will experience some of the best music ever written, including pieces by Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Duparc, performed by musicians who have demonstrated mastery of the art form for decades.

To say that Fleming has earned many honors is the equivalent of saying that the sun is hot: it’s not that it’s untrue, but it doesn’t go far enough. She’s performed at the Super Bowl and for the late Queen of England. She has earned France’s Chevalier de la Légion d›Honneur, and Germany’s Cross of the Order of Merit, Sweden’s Polar Prize. She’s recorded music for films, including for the Lord of the Rings franchise, and has won five Grammy Awards. Rumor has it that the seraphim have extended her an offer.

Evgeny Kissin managed to make it to six years old before he was recognized as a prodigy. At 10, he performed with an orchestra; at 11, he performed a solo recital in Moscow. Before long, he was performing outside his native Russia. At sixteen, he earned the Crystal Prize of the Osaka Symphony Hall for the year’s best performance. He’s earned many awards since, including multiple honorary doctorates. In 1992, he performed for the Grammys; some one billion people are estimated to have seen his performance, nearly a fifth of the world’s population at the time.

The Gilmore’s executive and artistic director, Pierre van der Westhuizen, joined the organization in 2018. Ever since then, he’s been trying to secure a performance by Kissin. “This is a bucket list it,” he said. “Kissin has never performed here.” In fact, he points out, both Fleming and Kissin are making their Gilmore debuts. 

Since the show’s announcement, feedback has poured in. “It’s ranged from incredible excitement to disbelief. They can’t believe it’s happening here. This is genuinely a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity. I’m hearing from colleagues at other institutions, too. They’re stunned—‘How did you pull this off?’ Honestly, it’s quite a coup.”

Despite the caliber of the performers, ticket prices start at $40 (by contrast, tickets to a Taylor Swift show the same evening are currently listed at $1,025 apiece—and that’s for seats with a “limited or obstructed view). “These tickets would be two or three times the cost in a larger city,” van der Westhuizen said. “We have very generous sponsors of the arts.” Those sponsors have helped make the show accessible to a broader audience than might otherwise have the opportunity to see it. Some tickets will be given away. 

Van der Westhuizen sees it as part of his mission to make shows like this accessible. Some people, he acknowledges, are intimated by the thought of classical music. Community partners help eliminate that factor, helping people move past the small but sometimes scary questions (what do I wear? How do I behave?) as well as helping them see why the music that will be performed matters: why, despite its age, it’s retained its beauty.

Among the pieces to be performed are works by Rachmaninoff, one of the great romantic composers. They’re virtuosic, meaning there’s a high wire aspect to them, but they’re also very beautiful. “He wrote these incredibly beautiful songs, dramatic, epic, and sweeping.” For all the prestige that Fleming and Kissin will bring to the stage, the finest moments of the evening may be those in which the performers themselves will seem to become transparent, allowing the audience to see through them to the heart of the music itself.

Renée Fleming & Evgeny Kissin
The Gilmore
May 27, 8 p.m.