Renee Fleming


Associated Press — M. Spencer Green

It would be difficult to find a Waco tradition richer than that of the Waco Symphony Orchestra, now beginning its 56th season of bringing a colorful tapestry of music to the Waco community. Yet the symphony may well be one of Waco’s best-kept secrets.

The typical symphony orchestra was once upon a time relegated to the bastions of an elite and aging society. But the Waco Symphony Orchestra has updated itself and woven together an exciting history with a variety of truly memorable artists, not to mention a superlative collection of talented and committed symphony professionals.

A few local patrons may yet remember the full list of guest artists who have visited Waco over the last half-century. Artists include Van Cliburn, who performed on three occasions, as well as Isaac Stern, Beverly Sills, Shirley Jones, Doc Severinsen, Andre Watts, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Joshua Bell, Frank Sinatra Jr., even Art Garfunkel. The world-renowned Itzhak Perlman was here in 2004. Many will remember the sold-out concert of international cellist Yo-Yo Ma during the 2015-2016 symphony season. And Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Yekwon Sunwoo helped us begin our current season with the Brahms Second Piano Concerto and its uplifting, utterly life-affirming finale. Texas’ beloved Van Cliburn may be gone but his tradition lives on.

The symphony has been professionally led by only two maestros: the well-known Daniel Sternberg and, since 1987, Stephen Heyde, now entering his 30th year as conductor. Maestro Heyde is highly acknowledged not only as a violinist but also as one who has performed or conducted with the Krakow State Philharmonic, Liszt Academy in Budapest and orchestras in Belgium and Argentina.

The Waco Symphony has for many years not only brought enriching music performances to a rapidly growing citizenry but also evolved into a pillar of education in supporting the Waco Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Belle and Brass Program as well as partnering in music education with both Tennyson Middle School and Lake Air Montessori Magnet.

But all this is only part of the symphony’s exciting story. For the 2017-2018 season, an incredible lineup of artists includes none other than internationally acclaimed opera star Renée Fleming, who will appear with the symphony at Baylor University’s Waco Hall on Nov. 7. Ms. Fleming’s story is an American tale of wonder.

Her great-grandparents came to the United States from Prague. She was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on Valentine’s Day 1959 and reared in Rochester, New York, with one sibling. Her parents were both music educators. She famously quipped when receiving the Spirit of Achievement Award from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 2015: “My parents taught vocal music [which was] like oxygen in our house. I honestly thought that all families sang four-part harmony waiting for stop signs.”

Fleming is not your average opera star. In 2008, she earned the distinction of being the first woman in the 125-year history of the Metropolitan Opera to solo headline an opening night gala. In 2010 she was appointed the first-ever creative consultant at Lyric Opera Chicago. She has sung for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. In 2013, she not only won the Best Classical Vocal Grammy Award but also received America’s highest award for an artist, the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Obama. In 2014, she became the first classical singer to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. And she has tackled unique repertoire, including Villa-Lobos’ utterly intoxicating “Forest of the Amazon,” swimming with Brazilian folk songs of the master composer’s own invention.

More recently, she was appointed Artistic Adviser-at-Large for the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Among other work, she is a board member of the Artistic Advisory Board of the Polyphony Foundation, which works to bridge the divide between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel by creating a common ground where young people come together around classical music. Fleming is also a passionate lecturer promoting the healing power of music in health treatment and recovery initiatives.

Being incredibly creative and gifted in all genres of music, she has not only sung with classical superstars Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli but has also mixed tunes with Elton John, Paul Simon, Sting, Josh Groban and Joan Baez. And her awards and accolades are many, including the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, Germany’s Cross of the Order of Merit, Sweden’s Polar Music Prize and France’s Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. She holds honorary doctorates from Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School.

So, yes, Renée Fleming is really coming to Waco, the heart of bluebonnets and country music. Though Waco Hall seating is limited, there is still plenty of time to get season tickets as well as tickets for this incredible once-in-a-lifetime event. Not only will we treat ourselves to an incredible evening of beautiful music but, in so doing, we will also be supporting an esteemed historical institution of Waco’s performing arts, our own Waco Symphony Orchestra.

Retired as an accountant and foundation executive director, Harry Harelik is a longtime Wacoan. He is president-elect and vice president of the Waco Symphony Orchestra.