We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, December 5, 2014


Brian Zeger, Austin Smith, Eric Jurenas, Miles Mykkanen, Virginie Verrez and Christine Price

As we have noted previously, the very best kind of recital nourishes the listener intellectually as well as artistically.   Last night's Juilliard Songfest presented the songs of Charles Baudelaire in such a manner that we were inspired to return to our copy of Fleur du Mal to reinforce the pleasure we experienced while listening to the music.

For us, the highlight of this presentation was hearing our favorite text "L'Invitation au voyage" in the familiar setting by Henri Duparc and later in a setting by Alexander Gretchaninov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov.  The magnificent mezzo Virginie Verrez has the advantage of being a native speaker of French and her total comfort with the language enabled her to immerse herself totally into conveying the textual significance.  

Along with the gorgeous instrument she employs with such fine technique, she possesses the rare artistry to bring you into the core of the song as she experiences it. One could break down the components of this artistry but there are times when we prefer to just allow ourselves to feel the music and the sound of the words as they envelop us.  This was one of those times.  We wanted to feel the exoticism and the erotic languor.

Gretchaninov's setting was unfamiliar to us but the Romanticism was beautifully interpreted by soprano Christine Price whose voice has a pleasant ring and a fine vibrato.  While not a native French speaker, Ms. Price's French diction was quite fine. 

Ms. Verrez seems to have a particular affinity for Duparc and we thrilled to her delivery of "La vie Antérieure".  The vivid fantasy elements of the text were given astonishing word coloring and we entered a strange beautiful world.  Likewise in "Harmonie du soir" when her voice joined with Mr. Zeger's piano and took us on a journey of simile and metaphor.  The imagery of a "flower offering incense to the night" and "a violin trembling like a heart betrayed" were particularly striking.  (The phrases sound much better in French!)

Ms. Price was particularly touching in Debussy's setting of "La Mort des amants" which, in spite of the title, struck us as far more romantic than morbid.

Special honors go to tenor Miles Mykkanen who appeared in the second half of the program and sang Fauré's setting of "Hymne, Op. 7, No. 2" a song without any of the darkness so common in Baudelaire's poetry.  Mr. Mykkanen shares with Ms. Verrez that very special quality of using gesture and voice in a completely organic way that makes a song appear to be spontaneous, belying all the effort and technique necessary to reach that point.

But he outdid that stellar performance with "Le Jet d'eau" in which a fountain is compared with "a white bouquet whose flowers sway until the moon releases showers of bright tears" (translations by Richard Howard).  In this, Mr. Zeger's piano offered a shower of harp-like tones.  Mr. Zeger's collaboration with these young singers knows no equal.  He is artistic director of the Ellen and James Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at Juilliard, among many other titles.  He seems to have perfect judgment in suiting the singer to the song.

Equally dazzling was their performance of Gretchaninov's setting of "Je t'adore" in which Mr. Zeger and Mr. Mykkanen united so perfectly that we were totally swept away.  This artistic partnership is the very reason for attending vocal recitals--when a voice and a piano can take you places you've never visited before.

Counter-tenor Eric Jurenas gave a fine performance of Debussy's setting of "Recueillement" in which the "Sun will die in its sleep beneath a bridge". Here, Mr. Zeger's piano laid down a thick carpet of Impressionistic sound for Mr. Jurenas. Sad to say but Mr. Jurenas' diction was not quite up to that of the others.  We caught a word here and there but never an entire sentence.

We have quoted some of the text to demonstrate the evocative nature that inspired such beautiful compositions.  How could one go wrong with imagery like that!  If you want to write a good song, you should choose good poetry!

More songs on the program included settings by Ernest Chausson, André Caplet, Daron Aric Hagen and Paul Hindemith--all fine songs but not as much to our taste as Fauré, Debussy, Duparc, and Gretchaninov.

We had only one quibble with the program.  Austin Smith was onstage reading the text in English translation.  Translations may give us the imagery of the text but not the innate musicality of the French language.  Furthermore, his reading lacked the dramatic impact we noted three months ago when Lucy Rowan narrated a Tennyson text at the Manhattan School of Music.

© meche kroop

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