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Mezzo Bernarda Fink makes belated debut with the CSO

mezzo soprano BernardFink (handout pix)

mezzo soprano Bernarda Fink (handout pix)

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Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Oct. 27; Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, 8 p.m. Nov. 1, 3 and 1:30 p.m. Nov. 2

Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets, $28-$260

(312) 294-3000;

Updated: November 22, 2012 6:18AM

She might not have the star power of some of her peers, but few of today’s classical singers are more esteemed than mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink.

Largely eschewing the glitzy, high-profile world of opera, this refined interpreter has instead gamely explored other, sometimes offbeat vocal realms from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

“I’m quite a timid person,” said Fink, 57. “I don’t like presenting myself. I don’t like photo sessions. I don’t like television cameras. And that’s wonderful, because I don’t need it really. The center of my attention is music, and that makes me really happy.”

Despite a long list of impressive accomplishments, including nearly 50 recordings, she has never sung with the Chicago Symphony — until now. Beginning Thursday, she joins the orchestra for two consecutive weeks of concerts, what for her is a rare extended stay.

“This is quite exceptional,” she said. “It never happens to me. It’s a very special experience. I don’t know Chicago, and then suddenly two projects with two extraordinary pieces.”

She teams Thursday through Saturday with the CSO’s former principal conductor, Bernard Haitink, in Ludwig van Beethoven’s great choral work, “Missa Solemnis,” and then returns Nov. 1-3 as soloist for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

It might seem a little odd that this debut is coming so late in her career. But Fink has been centered on Europe, and she typically only makes one trip a year to the United States.

This American visit, which also promotes her latest album on the Harmonia Mundi label, “Canciones Espanolas (Spanish Songs),” continues through Nov. 17 and includes a stop at Alice Tully Hall in New York City.

Born in Buenos Aires to Slovenian parents who fled the communist takeover of Eastern Europe after World War II, Fink studied music at the Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colon. After winning first prize in the Nuevas Voces Liricas competition in 1985, she moved to Europe.

Unlike most classical singers, she has found fame primarily from outside the mainstream operatic realm. From the beginning, the ever-versatile artist has kept her focus unusually broad, traversing symphonic music, oratorios, art songs and the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

“I know which repertoire suits my voice and which repertoire doesn’t,” Fink said. “Sometimes, it’s tricky, but there is so much repertoire that I love that it is not difficult to say no when something is clearly not for my voice.”

She has performed in many of Europe’s most illustrious venues, including London’s Wigmore Hall, where she is artist-in-residence this season, and worked with an array of major conductors, including Riccardo Chailly, John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Simon Rattle.

No collaborator, though, has meant more to her than Belgian conductor Rene Jacobs, a towering figure in the field of early music, with more than 200 recordings to his credit.

“I have some persons who really marked my way, and he was one of them,” Fink said. “Thanks to him, I started doing Baroque music, which I didn’t know, because at that time in Buenos Aires, when I did my studies, Baroque [music] was not well known yet.”

The two met 22 years ago, when she was called in the last minute to substitute for a singer who had fallen ill in a production of a Handel opera.

They have worked together frequently since, including a range of recordings, from a set of cantatas and arias by little-known 17th-century German composer Caspar Kittel to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera, “La clemenza di Tito.”

Whatever she has taken on — Argentinian art songs, Bach motets or Mahler symphonies — the mezzo-soprano has never lost her spirit of adventure or sheer joy in singing.

“I never thought about doing a career,” she said. “I just wanted to sing, and this is what I’m doing. And I’m doing it in a way I never dreamed about.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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