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, November 13, 2015


Sharon Isbin and Isabel Leonard

Last night at Zankel Hall, two world-renowned artists graced the stage and demonstrated all the magic of Spanish music.  If you came for emotion, you got it.  If you came for gorgeous sound, you got it.  If you came to feel the multi-cultural aspect of music from Spain, you got it.  If you came for glamour, you got it. 

As we have pointed out, Spain is geographically part of Europe. Almost. Sharing a border with the south of France, it juts out into the Atlantic, almost kissing Morocco. Spain is culturally its own, with strong influences from N. Africa dating back to the period of Moorish domination.

Much of the music coming out of Spain in the 19th and 20th c. bears echoes of flamenco.  It is surprising but much of the music we associate with guitar was originally written for the piano.

We have often written about zarzuela, the Spanish version of operetta, but last night's recital contained no arias, only art songs written by Spain's best composers. The recital was unique in that there was no collaborative piano, rather a collaborative guitar played by the world class guitarist Sharon Isbin who seemed to breathe in tandem with Ms. Leonard and whose solos astonished us with their virtuosity.

Nothing astonishes us about Isabel Leonard whose spectacular mezzo-soprano sheds magic on whatever she chooses to sing. We have often written about the rich overtones of her voice which lend it a most particular texture. Her stage presence is stunning but accessible and her phrasing always makes artistic sense.

She has a long intense involvement with Spanish music. Let us begin at the end when Ms. Leonard finally discarded the music stand which had impaired our connection for most of the evening.  More on that later.

Manuel de Falla wrote his Siete canciónes populares españolas in the early 20th c.  Ms. Leonard really connected with the audience and used her innate sense of drama to wring every ounce of color and change of mood from the seven songs. We particularly enjoyed the playful "Jota" in which Ms. Leonard conveyed the secret passion of the young lover; Ms. Isbin's guitar contributed the texture.

The intense "Polo" was so deeply felt that we experienced a pain in our very own heart. That's what a song should do for us!

In the remainder of the program, Ms. Leonard used a music stand, even for music which we know she knows well. Judging by the applause which interrupted every set after each and every song, the rest of the audience didn't care.  But we did.

This is our own personal bugaboo. When a singer breaks contact to look down or to turn the page, we feel the fine thread of attachment snap and we then retreat to reading the translation, instead of feeling the connection. The singer may very well be totally involved with the material but not with the audience.  We want to feel what they feel about the song and we lose it.

This deficit was experienced all through the marvelous and varied program. We love Federico Garcia Lorca's Canciónes españolas antiguas, settings of folk songs, strangely presented in two sets separated by two guitar solos. Ms. Leonard is a gifted storyteller and engaged the audience with her easy natural introductions. We particularly enjoyed "Romance de Don Boyso" and "Los mozos de Monléon" which allowed the artist room for a dramatic reading over the voice of the guitar.

Two selections from Xavier Montsalvatge's Canciónes negras, arranged by Ms. Isbin, were performed, of which our favorite was the tender lullaby "Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito" which our companion found to be racist. (Well, yes, but the De Falla songs are sexist--both products of their time and place and, in our opinion, beyond criticism).

A special treat was a composition by Joaquín Rodrigo. We have long loved his 1939 Concierto de Aranjuez but never knew that he extracted the Adagio and that his wife wrote text for it, a nostalgic piece of poetry in French. Victoria Kamhi was a Sephardic Jew, born in Turkey, and a pianist who gave up her career to assist her blind husband.  So, we don't know why it is in French but we loved Ms. Leonard's French diction.

A contemporary work by the American composer Richard Danielpour was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and saw its première on the program as well. The text is based on the poetry of Rumi, the 13th c. poet whose life story is filled with fascinating detail.

Writing in what was then the Persian Empire, presumably in Farsi, the poet wrote of love and spirituality. Raficq Abdulla's translation, while considered one of the finest, did nothing for us. Perhaps they are more interpretations than translations.  Perhaps they have lost much in the translation.

"Listen" seemed to be shoehorned into rhymed couplets and came across as doggerel which did not scan at all. Although we loved the music as played by Ms. Isbin, it seemed to us that it missed the eroticism of the second two selections--"This Night of Love" and "Your Beauty".

We did find the work far more listenable than most contemporary music, and Ms. Leonard's English diction lacked for nothing. The most musical part was when she sang on the syllable "La"; it probably would have sounded a lot better in Farsi! It is our opinion that before setting a text, a composer should think about whether the text needs music to enhance it!

We will not close without casting compliments on Ms. Isbin. We heard two late 19th c. masterpieces--Enrique Granados' "Andaluza" from his 12 danzas españolas and Isaac Albeniz' Asturias, arranged by Andres Segovia--written originally for piano. Ms. Isbin's powerfully rasqueadas instilled the pieces with flamenco flavor.

The familiar melodies are marked by strong bass notes with a fine filigree. We definitely were feeling the "gypsy soul" and recognized the guitarist as an artist who communicates what she herself is feeling. Her playing involved subtle changes of dynamics and technical mastery of the highest order.  In Francisco Tárrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the tremolo in the right hand called forth the vision of the plashing fountains.

As encore, we heard the Mexican composer Agustín Lara's 1932 "Granada" which brought the audience to their collective feet. We felt magnificently entertained.

We cannot end without returning to our comment about glamour. If an artist mentions her designer we feel called upon to comment. Austin Scarlett provided one hit and one miss.  The beautiful Ms. Leonard sported a red strapless gown that spilled into a pool on the floor; it was breathtaking. The lovely Ms. Isbin had a gown that appeared matronly, unbecoming, and uncomfortable.

(c) meche kroop

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