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.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Paul Appleby (photo by Frances Marshall)

We have been a great fan of tenor Paul Appleby for several years now--not just for his gorgeous instrument and perfection of technique but for the intense connection he establishes with the audience. He is always so immersed in the text and so able to transmit that to the audience that we feel we are going on an adventure with him as our guide. And what an engaging guide he is, addressing the audience as if we were all his friends.

Mr. Appleby is also impressive as a music scholar and his program notes share his insights about what he is singing.  We, however, approach vocal music from an emotional perspective and our appreciation leans more toward the timbre of his voice and his storytelling skills.

So it was that his second encore of the evening, "Kuda, Kuda" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin left us in tears, feeling all the swirling emotions that Lenski must have felt before his duel with Onegin. We heard Mr. Appleby sing that aria about three or four years ago.  We loved it then but feel his interpretation has grown in maturity and color. 

Mr. Appleby shared that the piece was chosen by Ken Noda, his piano partner for the evening.  How well matched they are!  Mr. Appleby's voice is soft-- and we are not referring to dynamics.  We are addressing the tenderness of texture that goes right to the heart.  And Mr. Noda's touch on the piano is similarly tender. We don't know a pianist with softer hands.

One thing that we respect about Mr. Appleby's programming is that he sings what he likes, not what he thinks will make up a "well-balanced program". And that means that we may not respond equally well to everything he chooses. His love of poetry may take him down some paths where we cannot follow but he always invests each song with a depth of understanding.

The first half of the program delighted us totally. The opening song was Franz Lachner's setting of Heinrich Heine's "Das Fischermädchen". The composer was part of Schubert's circle but we had never before heard his music and we were thrilled to be introduced to him. Indeed, Schubert himself set the same poem (as did a multiplicity of other composers and please don't ask us to choose a favorite).  Mr. Noda's piano suggested the rolling of the sea while Mr. Appleby burst forth with all the colors of a seductive invitation.

From Robert Schumann's "liederjahre" (1840), we enjoyed hearing his Liederkreis, Op.24, all settings of texts by Heine, in which Schumann plumbed the depths of the poetry and Mr. Appleby did the same. All of the colors of disappointed love were painted.  Perhaps our favorite of this set was "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden" which we well recalled from a prior recital by Mr. A. 

Following the Schumann, we heard four of Hugo Wolf's settings of texts by Eichendorff. Hearing "Das Ständchen" took us back to the summer of 2013 when Mr. Appleby performed an entire recital of serenades in Santa Fe. How wonderful to hear it once more. The poet's nostalgia was echoed by our own!

The second half of the program opened with the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin's Merrill Songs with Mr. Aucoin himself at the piano. It is here that Mr. Appleby lost us. We could not relate to James Merrill's poetry in spite of Mr. Aucoin's elaborate analysis in the program notes.  Nor could we relate to Mr. Aucoin's music, as much as we tried to open our ears to something new. Mr. Appleby clearly relates to it or he wouldn't have chosen it.  He sang with dramatic intensity but we could not wrap our ears around it.

Happily, we returned to more agreeable territory with some gorgeous songs by Hector Berlioz--three selections from Les nuits d'été.  There was the sweetly romantic and seasonally appropriate "Villanelle", followed by the unsettling "Au cimetière" with its major/minor shifts and strange harmonies. The final song "L'île inconnue" was filled with fanciful ideas and multiple colorations. Although this cycle was later orchestrated by the composer, we heard it in the original form with Mr. Noda's piano capturing all the colors of the orchestra.

Finally we heard a trio of songs by Heitor Villa-Lobos, which (we have it on good authority) were curated and translated by Steven Blier and Mr. Appleby.  As the first encore we heard (at the request of Mrs. Appleby) Benjamin Britten's arrangement of the folksong "O, waly waly".

We have been writing about Mr. Appleby for over five years and never fail to be impressed by his expressivity and artistic generosity. The surge of his career has been earned by a lot of hard work but he makes it appear effortless.  That's art!

(c) meche kroop

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