|Jared Bybee and Isabel Leonard
Readers will recall in what high esteem we hold the George London Foundation for Singers for their support of young artists. Their excellent series of recitals at The Morgan Library and Museum draws a large and enthusiastic audience who enjoy the music and the opportunity to mingle with the artists after the recital. The annual competition holds its finals on February 17th of 2017 and that will be one of the highlights of the season.
Yesterday's recital joined the talents of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, whose talent lights up every venue in which she sings, and rising star baritone Jared Bybee whose artistry garnered him an Encouragement Award last season from the George London Foundation.
We have been thrilling to Ms. Leonard's artistry since she was an undergraduate at Juilliard. We have heard and enjoyed Mr. Bybee in a number of competitions and also at the Santa Fe Opera. So we were really looking forward to this recital. Actually it managed to exceed our high expectations!
Perhaps it's the Argentinean genes that are responsible for Ms. Leonard's exquisite connection with Latin American music but when she feels it, we feel it. She performed four Spanish songs in different moods and varied colors. We were most affected by Manuel de Falla's "Oracion de las madres que tienen sus hijos en brazos"; if there is a more poignant anti-war song we have yet to hear it.
Ms. Leonard's performance of the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen made this old chestnut fresh again. There was so much going on in the introduction that we experienced the character in a new way--less arrogant and flashy--and more teasingly seductive.
Bellini must also be a favorite as evidenced by Adalgisa's aria "Sgombra è la sacra selva...Deh! Proteggimi, o Dio!" from Norma. Ms. Leonard manages to walk the fine line between reserve and exhibitionism. Every gesture appears spontaneous but must have been carefully considered. There is no excess; nothing is wasted. Tonal quality, language, phrasing, stage presence--everything is perfect.
We were likewise thrilled with Mr. Bybee's performance, particularly with the depth and breadth of his tone and his linguistic skills. He performed Maurice Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée in the most perfect French (we understand he studied with Classic Lyric Arts in France). He was effective without showy dramatics, using an admirable economy of gesture.
His phrasing worked well but what impressed us the most was his use of dynamic variety. One might say that he captured the spirit of each song--the reverence of "Chanson romanesque", the passion of "Chanson épique", and the humor of "Chanson à boire".
We were happy to hear yet more French from him in "Vision fugitive" from Massenet's Hérodiade, in which Hérode is transported by his vision of Salomé. We too were transported.
Mr. Bybee also sang selections from Voices from World War II--a cycle composed by Gene Scheer who had not been born until over a decade after the war ended. Nonetheless he wrote the lyrics himself. The music was more melodic than most contemporary music and the lines rhymed, although the scanning was awkward in places.
Nonetheless, it was given an affecting performance by Mr. Bybee whose English diction is so fine that we missed not a single word. As a woman, we were more affected by the aforementioned de Falla song. Mother love sings better than battle stories! Perhaps the song that made best use of our spiky English language was the jazzy "At Howard Hawks' House".
If you are bringing two terrific talents together, you can expect some delightful duets. From Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, we heard the wonderful teasing "Il core vi dono" in which Guglielmo wins the heart of Dorabella. Our heart was won by the charm of the scene.
Still more Mozart, also of a teasing nature, was heard in "Crudel! Perche finora" from Le Nozze di Figaro in which the clever Susana fools the not-too-clever Count Almaviva about a subsequent rendezvous. We must say that Ms. Leonard is very very good at teasing! In both these duets the two artists related extraordinarily well, both vocally and dramatically.
Each artist generously offered an encore. Mr. Bybee chose Salvatore Cardillo's "Cor 'ngrato" (Caterí! Caterí!) which he sang in authentic Neapolitan dialect. Just as Ms. Leonard comes by her facility with Spanish genetically, Mr. Bybee comes by his the same way.
Ms. Leonard's encore was "Someone to Watch Over Me", composed by the brothers Gershwin for the 1926 musical Oh, Kay! This team definitely knew how to use the English language and Ms. Leonard gave it a sincere reading that reinforces our belief that Broadway music, when done well, is truly America's best shot at the genre of "art song". Every phrase was sung for meaning, not for "effect".
The audience absolutely insisted on more and more we got! We rarely get tearful at a recital but this performance of "If I Loved You" from the 1945 musical Carousel turned on the waterworks. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were another writing pair who captured the American idiom perfectly.
It is many hours later but the mood has lingered. We always enjoy recitals but this one touched us deeply. And that's a good thing! Why get angry about politics when one can be deeply moved by good music!
(c) meche kroop