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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


David Sytkowski, Kirsten Chambers, Vira Slywotzky, and Bray Wilkins at National Opera Center

No one would deny the value of friends; so what do you do when your friends are all artists?  You put on a show!  That's what you do; you put on a show. The theme of Vira Slywotsky's show on Sunday was "Songs by Women Composers". We were all set for Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler but that wasn't on the menu.

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

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