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, February 28, 2019
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Sunday, February 24, 2019
|Kathleen O'Mara, Marie Engle, Megan Esther Grey, Jennifer Johnson Cano, and Matthew Polenzani|
|Julius Drake and Matthew Polenzani|
It is a special thrill to experience his artistry in a smaller house. It has been four years since we heard his recital at Alice Tully Hall and six years since his recital at the Morgan Library as part of the George London Foundation recital series--a return which celebrated his 1998 award.
Yesterday's recital at Zankel Hall was even more intimate and we appreciated
Mr. Polenzani's generous Italianate tone in both German and Czech; it is replete with resonance and his diction, thankfully, makes every word count. Still, the house lights were kept at a level that permitted those who do not understand foreign languages to read the translations.
The sound is huge and operatic when passionate intensity is called for-- but our preference was for the tender passages in which he mined great depth of feeling at even the most pianissimo level of dynamics.
Accompanied by the fine pianist Julius Drake, he opened his program with a half dozen Schubert lieder. He and Mr. Drake make a fine partnership since Mr. Drake's sensitive playing is never short of supportive. In the slow and melancholy "Nachtstück", the old man's harp was recreated by Mr. Drake's delicate arpeggi; Mr. Polenzani colored every word for maximum meaning.
In "Im Frühling", our personal favorite, the singer waxes nostalgic for happier days and Mr. Polenzani trailed off in a delicate decrescendo at the end. Schubert's brief interpolation of the minor key was well negotiated for maximum emotional effect. "Der Einsame" is a song of contentment and we have always called it "the cricket song" since the pianist gets to simulate their sound.
We haven't heard "Ständchen" so tenderly performed since we heard Paul Appleby sing it in Santa Fe. What an affecting performance with the tenderness yielding to passionate intensity!
Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte is marked by a smooth segué between songs, creating a sustained mood. Alois Jeitteles' text uses imagery taken from the natural world to express longing for the beloved. Our favorite part is in "Wo die Berge so blau" when the piano echoes the unforgettable downward scale passage "Schauen herein" as it does in the subsequent "Möchte ich sein" and "Innere Pein" (now in a minor key) and "Ewiglich sein". That motif pulls on the heart as only Beethoven's can do.
The bittersweet "Es kehret der Maien" opens with a lilting piano that shows us an aural picture of birds and babbling brooks. The cheerful mood dissipates in the last two verses but acceptance is achieved in the final song "Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder". That sounds like a good life lesson; when you can't fulfill your longings, accept it gracefully.
Of Brahms' Zigeunerlieder, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, our favorite was "Brauner Bursche fürht zum Tanze" with its spirited rhythm. This took Ms. Johnson Cano into some lower register territory which she negotiated without strain. Her performances always delight us.
The second half of the program was devoted to Leoś Janáček's song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. There is an interesting story about the text by Josef Kalda; in an elaborate hoax, which will resonate to those of our generation, the work was presented in 1916 in a Brno newspapers as "From the Pen of a Self-Taught Peasant", claimed to have been written by a farmboy who had mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a story of having been seduced by a gypsy girl who bore his child, and then running off with her and her gypsy family.
This is not so different from "Songs of Bilitis" which were given a false origin as well. And what about films that are purported to be "found footage"? Today we are accustomed to such pranks but we wonder if people of a century ago would have been enraged over the deception. Fortunately, they never found out because the hoax went unrevealed until 1998!
In any case, the work is an interesting one and Janáček's passionate outpouring of music expressed his unfulfilled longing for a much younger married woman. Czech is such a difficult language and it is impressive how well the composer matches its rhythms in his music. We notice that the lines of text are short.
The story is an appealing one and filled with detail of farm life, such as fashioning a new shaft for a broken plow. There are also plenty of details about the seductive gypsy girl with her black hair and white breasts. The poor farm boy is driven mad with desire and post-coital regret, with the sexual congress depicted in a piano solo. This allowed Mr. Drake to let out all the stops!
Music stands were used and, in this case, we can understand and tolerate their presence; but we must say that the part we enjoyed the best was when Ms. Johnson Cano walked onstage to sing the part of the gypsy Zefka--off the book! And she sang the hell out of it!
Contributing to the texture of the music was a chorus of three women who sang from the balcony--soprano Kathleen O'Mara and mezzo-sopranos Marie Engle and Megan Esther Grey. They sounded like a choir of angels!
This was interesting music, filled with pungent harmonies and wild rhythms. We don't know if we will ever get to hear it again but are very glad to have experienced it once.
As usual, the audience rose to its collective feet and showered the artists with accolades. Mr. Polenzani pointed out that the final work was a "tough act to follow" but he nonetheless rewarded his fans with a heartfelt delivery of "Danny Boy".
(c) meche kroop
Saturday, February 23, 2019
Thursday, February 21, 2019
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
|David Sytkowski, Kirsten Chambers, Vira Slywotzky, and Bray Wilkins at National Opera Center|
The program was varied, touching many points along the musical spectrum. The opening duet by Barbara Strozzi was introduced by the two sopranos; Ms. Slywotzky and Kirsten Chambers gave an engaging dramatic reading of a translation of the words in English before singing in Italian. The work was the preface to the Baroque opera Mercè di vol.
The two sopranos harmonized with lovely subtlety, Ms. Chambers' brighter voice taking the upper line and Ms. Slywotsky's darker instrument taking the lower line. There was nothing subtle, however about the highly expressive interpretation, leaving us only one thing to complain about--the music stand. We will not go into details about our objection, having done so many times in the past.
Tenor Bray Wilkins is best known to us for his work in operetta, especially with Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live. But we have also heard his "Kuda, kuda" and even attended his memorable coaching of it with Jane Marsh. Sunday we got to hear him in more contemporary works.
Pleasing us greatly was his performance as a super-picky fellow in "The Bachelor Song" from Adventures in Love, composed by Zina Goldrich with lyrics by Marcy Heisler. These two women make quite a team with music and text joining hand-in-hand--something we almost take for granted in 19th c. song and in American Musical Theater. Mr. Wilkins' delivery did not miss a trick in pulling laughter from the packed house.
The quality of his instrument was best appreciated in the romantic ballad "Taking flight" from Allison Under the Stars. It is such a romantic and sad story that we had to fight back tears. Mr. Wilkins was also princely in "Right before my eyes" from Ever After.
His Shrek was given a thick Scottish brogue and a wonderful personality in "When words fail" from the Disney film Shrek. Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire also made a fine writing team.
We are grateful to Vira and Friends for introducing us to the songs of Poldowski, a Belgian-born British composer and pianist born Régine Wieniawski, daughter of the Polish violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. She set poetry by Paul Verlaine in the early years of the 20th c.
Should we compare her settings of Verlaine poetry to those of Fauré? We decline and can only say that we enjoyed hearing something new to us and that Ms. Slywotsky, best known to us from Mirror Visions Ensemble and Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live, demonstrated her facility with a long and even French line. In "Dansons la gigue" she let out all the dramatic stops and had us giggling again. We particularly enjoyed the piano writing in "Mandoline" which was perfectly rendered by collaborative pianist David Sytkowski.
It is always a problem for us when a singer we like choses material that speaks to them but not to us. We don't know quite what to say, other than crediting them with a good performance. But we cannot pretend to be thrilled when we are not.
Ms. Slywotzky put her all into Three Browning Songs set by Amy Beach, a turn-of-the-19th c. composer whom we have enjoyed. We just had the feeling that Robert Browning's text did not need to be set.
The same could be said for Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose sonnets were set by Sheila Silver. Ms. Chambers gave an intense and dramatic performance but we could not wrap our ears around those songs. Similarly, she was having a great time with Love in the Early Morning: Two Songs About Making Love to the Milkman. We found Joelle Wallach's music to be strange and the text to be uninteresting. Still, the audience seemed to enjoy the performance and Ms. Wallach, who was in attendance, seemed thrilled. Ms. Scott and Ms. Wallach seem to have a close personal connection and the latter's music has inspired Ms. Scott, which is all to the good. We just wanted to recuse ourself.
Of course we are in support of female composers but we think we would prefer to find them in musical theater these days. Marsha Norman's soul-searching "A bit of earth" from The Secret Garden did touch us and Mr. Wilkin's fine diction made every word count.
There will be more Vira & Friends performances so let's keep an open mind.
(c) meche kroop