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December Divas: Renée Fleming’s “Christmas in New York”

Christmas in New YorkLabel: Decca

In a completely different direction from her lovely and evocative “Sacred Songs” album in 2005, Renée Fleming dabbles with jazz and songbook music (and, in some cases, sounds nearly unrecognizable) in “Christmas in New York.” The album was released in 2014 at the beginning of Fleming’s aggressive exploration of new genres (Will we now measure Fleming’s career as before/after Living on Love?). The album is actually quite well curated; It’s not cloyingly Christmassy or stuffed with predictable favorites. Classics like “Silver Bells” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are balanced out by pieces like “Snowbound” and “The Man With the Bag.” Also notable for the way Fleming looped in collaborators to join her on certain pieces, the album features performances with Wynton Marsalis and Fleming’s musical-theatre doppelganger, Kelli O’Hara (O’Hara and Fleming are so well matched in their performance of “Silver Bells” that it really makes you wonder why The Merry Widow didn’t go better.). Musically, the album has its bugs. Fleming’s scatting in jazz pieces leaves something to be desired and, for the sake of wallowing in it, the tempi on some pieces drag on. Instrumental arrangements border on the cheesy and sometimes notes held for emphasis fizzle out in Fleming’s detectable internal struggle between vibrato and straight-tone. Words are sometimes garbled for the sake of jazzy soul and her riffing is about as fluid and flexible as Hillary Clinton’s taking a selfie. While Fleming’s affection for the material is obvious, there is still an air of uncomfortableness with the non-classical nature of most of the pieces. Fleming is a hugely gifted classical singer, and anybody who knows her primarily in that capacity will need some time to adjust to the “cool” Renee Fleming. The best tracks on the album are those where she can find a happy medium between the classical line and the spicy punctuations of jazz. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a duet with Rufus Wainwright, and “Love and Hard Times,” stand out for this reason. They have the perfect balance of the Fleming you know and love and the Fleming that seems headed in a new artistic direction. It’s not a classical Christmas album, but it’s nice background music for your holiday party and gives insight to where Fleming’s head it at right now as an artist. Maybe she’ll grow into this music, maybe she won’t, but this album is pretty comprehensive for an artist at a crossroads.


One comment on “December Divas: Renée Fleming’s “Christmas in New York”

  1. >>gives insight to where Fleming’s head it at right now as an artist

    I’m not sure I really want to know the answer to that!

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