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, January 26, 2017


Jinhee Park and Rebecca Farley

Last night's liederabend at Juilliard impressed us on two counts. Firstly, we got to increase our rather newly established appreciation of Russian song. Secondly, we got to hear some singing in English that was comprehensible, a feature that is rarely the case. For the Russian we have Natalia Katyukova to thank since she coached last night's students in the Vocal Arts Department. We were pleased that each singer and collaborative pianist introduced her/himself and told something about the works they were going to sing.

Baritone Dimitri Katotakis opened the program with a quartet of songs by the 20th c. composer Georgy Sviridov--two from the early stage of his composing career and two from the late stage. Fortunately, there are places in the world where serialism and 12-tone experimentation were ignored! If we did not grasp all the themes of the poetry outlined by Mr. Katotakis, we did observe that he thought about what he was singing and filled the songs with meaning. 

Much of the text involved bells--all kinds of bells from sleigh bells to those in the belfry--and collaborative pianist Adam Rothenberg made each one clarion clear. Our favorite song was the spirited "Winter's Road" in which Pushkin's text describes an eager lover on his way across a snowy landscape to join his sweetheart. The artists created an aural picture.

Mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas, accompanied by pianist Dror Baitel, sang a pair of songs by Nikolai Medtner and a pair by Sergei Rachmaninov--all of them about flowers.  She described the drama of Medtner's approach as contrasted with Rachmaninov's more delicate approach to the fragility of flowers. 

Goethe's text for "Das Veilchen" had been so exquisitely set by Mozart over a century earlier and, in our opinion, could not be improved upon.  In Medtner's hands the charming tale became a bit heavy-handed for our taste. But we enjoyed Ms. Thomas' singing and Mr. Baitel's lavish piano accompaniment.

Russia has always had a thing for the French, so it was not too surprising that Aleksandrt Grechaninov, a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, set selections from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal.  Once again we heard yet another setting of "L'invitation au voyage" but remain attached to the Henri Duparc setting, although there is nothing shabby about the lesser-known setting by Emmanuel Chabrier. Accompanied by Sora Jung, tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole performed this and two others in a pleasantly sweet tenor. We think there is room for improvement in his French.

Baritone Dominik Belavy, whose second language is English, impressed us with the clarity of his diction in Charles Ives' "Tom Sails Away". We have heard him before and love the mellow sound of his voice; last night we found something new to appreciate. To tell a story one needs to make every word clear, and he did. 

Although his German is equally fine as was his delivery of Ives' setting of "Ich grolle nicht", this is another case where an earlier setting was infinitely superior.  Robert Schumann set Heinrich Heine's text in his cycle Dichterliebe with many compositional devices to highlight the irony. The placement of accents and chromaticism are just perfect.  The Ives did not achieve anything close.

Although we did not understand Mr. Belavy's choice to pair Ives' songs with those of the 20th c. composer Pavel Haas, we surely did enjoy them. Haas was a Jewish Czech composer who set Chinese poetry whilst confined in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt, after which he was transferred to Auschwitz and gassed. In spite of the tragedy of his curtailed life, he left behind a fair amount of music.

Notably, Mr. Belavy translated the Czech (which had been translated from Wang Wei's original text by Bohumil Matthesius). If something was lost in this double translation, we know not but we do know that we appreciated Mr. Belavy's singing in Czech, especially after hearing Jamie Barton discussing the difficulties of this enterprise! Mr. Haas had a unique compositional style which pianist Rosa Li interpreted beautifully.

The program ended with soprano Rebecca Farley singing Samuel Barber's "Knoxville Summer of 1915". The text was extracted from a so-called "prose poem" by James Agee that later became the prologue to his book A Death in the Family. It was beautifully and expressively sung but has never resonated with us. We cannot think of many instances in which we have enjoyed prose set to music. It seemed to us that the text was tortured into place reminding us of a tailor trying to make a garment fit a body with lots of bulges.

Nonetheless, the piece is often heard in vocal recitals and many people love it for its nostalgia. We are looking forward to hearing Ms. Farley's solo recital on Feb 16th to see how she sounds in a variety of material.  Her collaborative pianist Jinhee Park had a chance to shine in the instrumental interlude and did a fine job creating the sounds of the streetcar--the iron whining, the bell ringing, and the spark crackling were all heard. Good job!

(c) meche kroop

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