|Curtain Call at the George London Foundation Celebration Concert
The 45-year-old George London Foundation has partnered with The Morgan Library and Museum for the past 20 years and has succeeded in three important areas: they have supported no less than 400 singers at the early stages of their careers; they have built a devoted audience of opera lovers; and they have honored the legacy of bass-baritone George London.
All of this has been accomplished under the stewardship of Nora London who was honored last night by a gala recital, performed by opera royalty, some of the brightest stars of the operatic firmament. It is a wonderful tribute that recipients of the foundation's awards returned to honor Mrs. London with performances that left us dazzled by their brilliance.
The evening was hosted by the retired Canadian tenor Ben Heppner who also ended the evening by treating the audience to Weatherly and Woods' 1916 song "Roses in Picardy", sung with touching depth of feeling and dynamic variety. It was a great treat to hear him sing again.
We tried to define what made this concert stand out above all the superb concerts we have seen this year. What did all these luminaries have in common? Other than their artistry, dedication, and commitment, we sensed a joy in singing. Most likely they chose material that they loved to sing; they appeared to be having a wonderful time.
Christine Brewer has a huge soprano which she scaled to the size of the hall and the tenderness of the songs selected from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder. We have heard her "huge" and we have heard her "funny", but we have never before heard her "tender". Collaborative pianist Craig Rutenberg, by all accounts an engaging presence, matched her delicacy perfectly in "Der Engel" and "Träume".
Later, she sang the stirring "My Long Life" from Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All, paying tribute to Susan B. Anthony by making every word and phrase count in what could be taken as a lesson in English diction for young singers. She closed the program with a tribute to Mrs. London--"If I Could Tell You" by Firestone.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky gave a riveting account of "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Russalka. Her enormous voice was just bursting with overtones and her intense involvement with the emotional content shook us to the core.
Later in the program, with mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, she performed "Mira, o Norma" from Bellini's opera of the same name. There was maximum sympathetic impact from these two incredible voices harmonizing in sound and spirit. Actually, we perceived the performance as a trio with Mr. Rutenberg's piano weaving in, around, and under the vocal lines. It was thrilling.
Ms. Mentzer delighted the audience with "Sein wir wieder gut" from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos--a real tribute to music as a "heilige kunst".
When soprano Ailyn Pérez took the stage, the electricity in the room was palpable. With consummate Latin fire, she performed a quartet of songs by the 20th c. Spanish composer Fernando Obradors.
"La mi sola, Laureola" began with an a capella passage for the soprano and then the gentle filigree of the piano entered. We became entranced. By the time the pair got to "Del cabello mas sutil" we were melting into the seat. "El vito" is a folk song which Obradors set in wild rhythm and it was performed with incredible vitality. Even the gifted but unassuming collaborative pianist Ken Noda caught fire!
This Latin charmer showed another side of her artistry with the verismo aria "Ebben! Ne Andrò Lontana" from Catalani's La Wally.
The three male singers were all bass-baritones, as was George London! It is one thing to hear established stars up close and personal for the first time. One doesn't know what they sounded like when they were young and promising, although we are sure there were at least a few people in the room who heard James Morris and Eric Owens when they were starting out.
It is quite another thing to hear someone young enough that we have been able to observe the growth of their artistry. Such is the case with Brandon Cedel who just keeps getting better and better. Even at the very lowest part of his range, his voice is exciting. But there is no sacrifice of flexibility as he demonstrated in Count Rodolfo's aria "Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni" from Bellini's La sonnambula.
Later, he performed the folksong "Boatmen's Dance", set by Aaron Copland; the performance was marked by lively personality, good variety of dynamics, and such fine English diction that not a single word was lost. It was fun! And just looking at Mr. Noda's face told us that he was sharing the fun and showing it through his nimble fingers.
Another bass-baritone to perform was Eric Owens, who always gives a splendid performance. Don Ruy Gomez de Silva's aria "Infelice! E tuo credevi" from Verdi's Ernani was given an expansive reading with Mr. Owens employing all the depth and breadth of his instrument in a show of intimidating aristocratic force.
His second choice was the "Chanson à Boire" from Ravel's song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. His bibulous performance began while Mr. Rutenberg was still shuffling the pages of the piano score and the audience loved it.
A medley of songs from M. Leigh's Man of La Mancha was so magnificently performed by the venerable James Morris that we were finally able to "accept" him as someone other that Wotan. We never had the opportunity to hear him in his youth but we heard him as Wotan so many times that we had trouble imagining him portraying any other character. But his rich voice and compelling stage presence made him totally convincing as Don Quixote. We loved it!
There was one charming bagatelle that we must mention.-- Mr. Rutenberg on the treble side of the piano and Mr. Noda on the bass side performing Tchaikovsky's own arrangement of "The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" from The Nutcracker Suite.
What a celebration! A celebration of George London's legacy, a celebration of a mutually beneficial partnership, a celebration of Nora London's dedication, a celebration of vocal and pianistic merit, a celebration of "heilige kunst".
(c) meche kroop