Art song meets gospel as star soprano Measha Brueggergosman ups the ante

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      It’s not like she recommends it to everyone, but Measha Brueggergosman is feeling preternaturally happy following the heart attack that almost killed her just five short months ago.

      “Oh, my goodness. Isn’t it great?” she says, after learning that her interviewer is another cardiac survivor. “It’s amazing, now that you’re getting the oxygen.”

      Reached while she’s enjoying a glass of wine in Windsor, Nova Scotia, just a skip away from her Falmouth home, the soprano explains that she’s just come from a visit to her homeopath. “I gave her a rundown of my last quarter, and she was like, ‘First of all, why aren’t you still in bed?’ ” she says, laughing. “And I was like, ‘Well, nobody has time for that. Next?’ ”

      Long recognized for the emotional intensity of her performances, the 42-year-old Brueggergosman has upped the ante with the program she’s bringing to Vancouver this weekend. Accompanied by pianist Justus Zeyen, she’ll open with the relatively restrained beauty of English composers Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten, heat things up with Catalan-born Xavier Montsalvatge’s Caribbean-inspired Cinco Cancionas Negras, and conclude with a bold move: interpolating Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with four numbers drawn from the gospel tradition she grew up with as a pastor’s daughter in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

      “It’s a bit of a journey, isn’t it?” she says. “And yet there’s passion in all of it. Now, Britten, let me tell you, that’s the hardest sell for me—but I keep programming it because I know there’s passion in it. Like, it’s better me making this real for you than someone who holds you at an arm’s length. I am a passionate performer; I tuck myself into the text. And Purcell, for me, naturally leads to Britten in the English aesthetic.

      “That’s just snazzy programming,” she adds, laughing again. “So I’m just showing off.”

      Video: Measha Brueggergosman sings "Both Sides Now" in 2007 in front of Joni Mitchell.

      Nothing on the program, however, will give Brueggergosman more opportunity to display her vocal flexibility than the concluding medley. The pairing of Strauss and gospel might seem counterintuitive, but the singer makes a convincing case that European art song and the African-American spiritual are soul mates.

      “For me, the Four Last Songs are essentially German spirituals,” she explains. “The subject matter, the positivity, the idea of approaching death with such an assurance of things to come… The spiritual does that. There’s not a negative connotation in any of the spirituals, despite the fact that they’re born of a people who were oppressed so deeply. The product of these people stolen from their home and forced into labour, the systemic murdering of a people, is this collection of triumphant praise, heralding of community, and the true faith that the best is before them.”

      There’s more to this combination than musical strength and beauty, Brueggergosman adds. For one thing, this part of her program reflects the two main strands of her life: the classical training she absorbed at the University of Toronto and Düsseldorf’s Robert Schumann Hochschule, and the family lore that her ancestors took with them to the Maritime provinces when they escaped slavery by moving north after the American Revolution. She’ll also be paying homage to her late mentor Jessye Norman, who not only sang both Strauss and spirituals with uncommon grace, but gave “a big-boned girl growing up in a small town.…permission to be exactly who we are”.

      And then there’s the notion of service, a concept informed by Brueggergosman’s Christianity, but also by her conviction that art is for all.

      “I don’t know what my listeners are going back home to,” she says. “I don’t know what they sacrificed in order to spend money on their tickets. But I’m going to make it worth their while. I’m going to make it so they don’t regret it. I’m going to make it something that they’re going to reach for in those moments when they want to give in to negativity or the pain of, you know, everyday life.

      “Music, for me, is something that really helps to nourish my soul, which is what people see when they see me on-stage,” she continues. “And that to me is the wellspring—not just the physical heart but the emotional heart—which all things are from. Healthy root, healthy plant. And the shoots that I want to harvest, I want to be sweet and juicy.”

      The Vancouver Recital Society presents Measha Brueggergosman at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. on Sunday (November 17).