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In Full Voice

Germany's Thomas Quasthoff, born a thalidomide baby, has gone on to become an acclaimed bass-baritone soloist through talent, perseverance and a bit of luck.

April 04, 1999|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel writes on arts and culture

CHICAGO — Thomas Quasthoff sings the last note of Brahms' "German" Requiem, and the audience stumbles to its feet. Wails of "bravo!" echo from the balcony of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall. There are stricken faces and tears. Quasthoff smiles broadly and bows his head graciously, walks off stage and back on again several times. People in the audience clap and shout, with a desperation that defies mere compliment. There is a knowing look on Quasthoff's handsome face that says he is used to this.

For one thing, at 39, the German bass-baritone is among the most critically acclaimed voices of his generation, praised for his clear, resonant tone, impeccable diction, interpretive intelligence and emotional range. In Europe, Quasthoff has been a sought-after soloist for the last decade, since winning first prize at an international music competition in Munich sponsored by German broadcasting. He made his U.S. debut in 1995 at the Oregon Bach Festival with Helmuth Rilling and has since gone on to perform with Colin Davis and the New York Philharmonic, Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony and this night with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony. (Quasthoff will make his California debut at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo tonight and will perform with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Friday and Saturday.)

Then there is the more poignant fact that Quasthoff has scaled these musical heights despite being born a thalidomide baby, after his mother took the pill for morning sickness. Quasthoff's voice and presence are gigantic, magnificent, yet he is 4 feet tall, with underdeveloped hands and arms. That his masculine head and face can register and communicate any emotion only serves to dramatize the contrast of cheated limbs and compromised frame.

Out of respect for his artistic merit, and surely a dutiful sense of political correctness, critics have struggled to find the right tone when reviewing him. Some have chosen to avoid the subject of his disability altogether or made it an awkward preamble or footnote. Quasthoff knows that his story lies somewhere in between, in the inseparable tangle of talent and perseverance, of circumstance and the triumph of will.

"I think one of the main facts is that they admire very much that a disabled person is able to sing on a very high level," he will say later of his audiences, who usually send him off with effusive standing ovations.

"I'm now old enough to know that they don't give me applause because of my disability," he says in his fluent if slightly stilted English. "But I would be completely stupid if I said, 'Well, yes, it's my artistship, it's my voice, yes.' It is the mixture of both. I cannot cut out my disability."

In fact, he says he knows that his disability gives him insight his colleagues will never have, and that who he is lends a mysterious power to his music. On this winter night in Chicago, Quasthoff seems not merely to have captured the hearts and minds of every member of the audience, but to have gobbled them whole.

The next morning, while the wind blows and the snow swirls outside on Michigan Avenue, the lobby of the Chicago Hilton and Towers is mobbed. Quasthoff arrives at the appointed 8:55, showered but Sunday-morning weary in crisp jeans, tennis shoes and a nubby off-white sweater. Accompanied by a stranger--a persistent fan, it will turn out--he makes vague introductions. Then he takes off briskly down the crowded corridor toward the breakfast room, his head bent as if averting a windstorm. Walking next to him, it seems natural to do the same and avoid the double takes of the oncoming human traffic.

*

While we join a cacophonous breakfast line, it becomes clear that the aggressive fan has invited himself along on the interview, may even want to make his own tape of it. When Quasthoff is told that this wasn't part of the deal, he says with a snort: "Well, if we can't all sit down together, then there won't be an interview!" When he's informed that the breakfast room will be too noisy to talk, he rolls his eyes and turns up the volume, his bass-baritone booming above the din: "But I haven't had my breakfast! I need coffee!" Members of the breakfast line turn, startled, to identify the source of the scene.

Quasthoff doesn't notice. He barks at the nearest hotel employee to provide a quiet table. Leading the way to a far corner of the lobby, he warns that the clock is ticking and a car will pick him up at 10 a.m. sharp. After some quick, hard negotiations, the fan is persuaded to leave.

If Quasthoff wants everyone to know that he has been dragged into this interview kicking and screaming, then it's astonishing how fast he throws off the temper tantrum and turns on the charm. He leans forward, looks the reporter in the eyes and says in a melting voice, which has dipped to pianissimo: "If it's more than an hour, don't worry."

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