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.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Bryan Wagorn and Nadine Sierra

We rushed uptown to the Park Avenue Armory from our afternoon at the Morgan Library where we heard seventeen young singers competing for the generous awards given by the George London Foundation.  Only a glutton for vocal music could retain energy and enthusiasm. But the artistry of Nadine Sierra and her piano partner Bryan Wagorn ensured that our attention never flagged. 

It occurred to us that Ms. Sierra, not yet 30, would have fit right in with the demographics of the London competitors.  But Ms. Sierra won that competition eight years ago!  And performed a recital for them three years ago as well.  One might say that her star ascended very early. Indeed she was the youngest person to have won the Met National Council Award. And the awards just kept rolling in!

Ms. Sierra is now world renowned but she maintains the warmth, naturalness, and generosity of spirit that can bring an audience to its knees--and to its feet also, for a standing ovation. We have reviewed her performances more than any other singer.  Five years ago we called her "The Diva Next Door".  Earlier reviews have been lost but we have been impressed with her artistry from the very first time we heard her.

Last night she performed as part of a series held in the superbly restored Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory. The intimate space allowed us to feel up close and personal and its historic nature seemed perfect for a vocal recital.  And what a recital it was!

There was quite a bit of overlapping with a recital she and Mr. Wagorn presented three years ago at Pace University as part of a vocal series that sadly is no more. Our favorite part of both recitals was the Strauss. It seemed as if Richard Strauss wrote the songs with her in mind. The richness of tone, the musicality of phrasing, the artistry of the word coloring, and the intensity of involvement with the text all joined to give the feeling of newness to songs we have heard countless times.

Each song seemed like a mini opera and the listening gave rise to visual imagery, making each one a satisfying experience. "Zueignung" could not have been more passionate and "Allerseelen" could not have been more soulful, as Ms. Sierra caressed each word. The high notes floated up to the very high ceiling.

"Ständchen" was sung playfully and "Cäcilie" with passionate enthusiasm. Ms. Sierra invested "Morgen" with an ethereal quality and Mr. Wagorn's playing of the prelude set the stage perfectly.

Schubert's "Du bist die Ruh" was performed with delicacy and the kind of legato quality one expects in Italian, yet without any cheating of the consonants. The two artists matched each other's style in a most affecting manner.

Schumann's "Widmung" is a bit lower lying but presented no obstacle to Ms. Sierra. We could hear the composer's deep affection for Clara in every phrase.

We have heard Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs many times and have never warmed to them. In spite of the detested music stand, which Ms. Sierra did not seem to need, she was able to give them a full measure of artistry. As usual, the two we do appreciate--"Promiscuity" and "The Monk and His Cat" are not of a religious nature.

Our love for zarzuela was requited by the performance of "Me llaman la primorosa" from Gerónimo Giménez' 1901 El barbero de Sevilla, which is, yes, about some young singers performing the Rossini opera. This gave Ms. Sierra an opportunity to do the Musetta thing and the audience loved it. If there were one thing on the program that we'd want her to do without the music stand, this was it.  What a wonderful encore piece it would be.

Joaquin Rodrigo's mid 20th c. Cuatro madrigales amatorios was written in estilo antico and we always love hearing them for their solid Iberian flavor in the piano and the pungent text. "De dónde venís, amore?" was imbued with flirtatiousness.  In the final song "De los álamos vengo, madre" the final note was spun out like a silk filament and we held our breath.

We were not very familiar with the Turina songs which followed--settings of romantic text by Lope de Vega--but they were quite lovely.

Ms. Sierra is generous in sharing anecdotes with the audience and related how her Portuguese grandmother shared a musical language with her but not a spoken one. She sees her career as a fulfillment of the grandmother's journey. And so we were gifted with some songs in Portuguese.

Ernani Braga's "Engenho novo" is a rapid fire tongue twister that tickled our ears.  On the other hand, Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Melodia sentimental" is lyrical and romantic.  Both were composed in the mid 20th c.

Back came the music stand for Bernstein's "A Julia de Burgos" which we heard recently at New York Festival of Song.

Ms. Sierra expressed her gratitude to Marilyn Horne for jump starting her career and giving her worthwhile advice; she paid her tribute with an encore--Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer"--beautifully rendered in a very different timbre than the rest of the recital.

It was clear that the audience would not let Ms. Sierra off the stage without some opera and we heard a most enchanting performance of "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. What father could resist such a plea?

A word to the wise-- Ms. Sierra has just recorded her first album.  It should be a major success.

(c) meche kroop

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