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, April 10, 2015


Mary-Elizabeth  O'Neill, Jessine Johnson, James Edgar Knight, Fan Jia, and Sophia Kaminski

A recital this special does credit not only to the artists but to the coach; so let us acknowledge Gina Levinson right at the beginning. It has taken us longer to appreciate Russian song than songs in the languages that we speak and understand. It never struck us as a particularly beautiful language, but from the hearts, voices and hands of these young Juilliard artists it was suffused with beauty.

The dramatic skills were notable all around and each singer used gesture and body language to get the text across, without ever losing vocal artistry.  Each collaborative pianist conveyed the intention of the composer to paint vivid pictures that dazzled the mind's eye.

A particular knockout was mezzo-soprano Mary-Elizabeth O'Neill who conveyed us to a 19th c. nursery with a little girl and her doll, a nanny, a hobby horse, a naughty cat, and an even naughtier little boy. We wonder if Modest Mussorgsky, who wrote his own text, was writing from his own experience.

But there was no doubt that Ms. O'Neill was very much in touch with the text herself and we were not surprised to learn that she did her own translations. Readers must know by now that we are not a fan of "park and bark" and love it when a singer uses her entire body to get a song across. The image of Ms. O'Neill galloping around the stage on her imaginary hobby horse is one that we will not soon forget.

The colors of her voice were manipulated to distinguish between the nanny and the child and later the child and his mother. All this was accomplished without losing tone or phrasing. Kathryn Felt at the piano joined in the fun and left us smiling until our cheeks hurt.

Gorgeously melodic songs by Tchaikovsky, of the same generation as Mussorgsky, appeared twice on the program. What a surprise to learn that the lovely soprano Sophia Kaminski is still an undergraduate. She clearly demonstrated how Tchaikovsky's melodies followed the rhythm of the language and her clear bright voice floated on the surface of the melody with a fine and pleasing vibrato.

In the strophic song "Was I not like the grass in the field?" she brought out the plaintive lament of a young girl married off to an old man she did not love.  It was heartbreaking. In the rhythmic"A Gypsy Song" she had the opportunity to show a more light-hearted side as a young woman who has no problem bidding adieu to her most recent lover. Her collaborative pianist William Kelley was particularly fine in this song.

Baritone Fan Jia, accompanied by Hea Youn Chung, was equally impressive in another set of Tchaikovsky songs. He began the set with the beautiful "No, only he who has known".  Although the text is attributed to one Lev Mey, we are sure they were Goethe's words from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, which were also set by Schubert and Beethoven.

Mr. Jia sang it beautifully with plenty of the requisite pathos and longing. There is a tender texture to his instrument that makes it most powerful when his sings pianissimo. He was accompanied by Hea Youn Chung and the pair made quite an impression with these lovely songs. Our second favorite was "Believe it not, my friend" with text by Tolstoy. We do believe that our affection for 19th c. composers has much to do with their choice of text to set.

James Edgar Knight performed some fine songs by Rachmaninoff who composed a generation after the aforementioned composers. His songs are wildly passionate and Mr. Knight used his tenor in a manner that emphasized this passion. Our favorite was the popular "Do not sing, my beauty, to me", the haunting melody referencing Russian suffering. Ava Nazar is always a fine and sensitive accompanist, here bringing out the pathos.

It was a bit of a relief to hear the more wistful "A Dream" in which Mr. Knight brought it down a notch. The hopeful and seasonable "Spring Waters" ended the set.  Mr. Knight seems to taste the words he sings, which we love.  We would love his performances even more if he relaxed his high notes a bit. His voice is very powerful!

The program closed with a set of songs by Shostakovich from Satires. The impressive soprano Jessine Johnson explained that Shostakovich composed them during the postwar economic depression of the 20th c. The playfulness on the surface is actually ironic.

The music is more modern than the earlier music we prefer but Ms. Johnson sang the songs with clarity, style and involvement, which brought us into the music.  We particularly liked the irony of a "better future" in "Descendants".  Her accompanist HoJae Lee was particularly fine in that song.

Every visit to Juilliard presents fresh delights for the ear and this recital yesterday was a real winner. Hearing this superb music sung and played by these gifted young artists has brought us to a newer and more profound appreciation of Russian song. Our companion at the recital, completely new to vocal recitals, has become a fan of the art song. And that's saying something!

(c) meche kroop

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