How to describe Janai Brugger’s voice in her exquisite Fresno concert Thursday?
Pure. Tender. Powerful. At times silky smooth, at others almost husky. Gauzy and nostalgic. Sturdy and reverential. Giddy. Saucy. Proclamatory. Very, very soft: a pianissimo that felt as if it slipped away till nothing.
But the aural memory I’ll take with me from Brugger’s performance, which kicked off the Fresno Pacific University Pacific Artist Series, is a repeated word in a song titled “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall (The Secret Nightingale”), part of Grieg’s “Sechs Lieder Op. 48.”
“Tandaradei! Tandaradei!” she sang. (One source I found online describes it as an “onomatopoeic imitation of singing nightingales.”) The ringing, rounded tones reminded me of a bell choir, or perhaps perfect dollops of whipped cream: a distinctive, almost otherworldly sound. It was remarkable.
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The audience at University Presbyterian Church got a chance to experience one of the nation’s most acclaimed up-and-coming sopranos, thanks to her connection with pianist Douglas Sumi, a Fresno Pacific alum who is forging his own impressive career in classical music.
Together, Brugger – who has a contract with the Metropolitan Opera this season – and Sumi offered a graceful, inspirational program that included a memorable performance of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” (Sumi’s accompaniment in that piece was technically dazzling.)
The treat for Fresno audiences: The duo will reprise this program Sept. 8 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. That’s one of the perks of Brugger winning the 2016 Marian Anderson Vocal Award, given to a young singer “who has achieved initial professional success in the vocal arts and who exhibits promise for a significant career.”
Opera is about the voice, yes, but it’s also about inhabiting a character. I was especially impressed with Brugger’s acting prowess and physicality, even within a concert setting. From hands on her hips and a shrug of delight in Gounod’s bouncy “Jewel Song” from “Faust” to the plaintive wistfulness of Sandoval’s “Sin tu amor,” Brugger convinced me each time of the story of what she was singing.
She closed out the program with a series of spirituals (I loved the tender “Give me Jesus”) and offered “Summertime” as an encore. Still, as I walked out of the sanctuary, I could still hear those tones from the Grieg song ringing in my head. I’d just been in the presence of a nightingale.