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.

Friday, December 6, 2019


Brian Zeger, Keshav Moodliar, Chance Jonas-O'Toole, Libby Sokolowski, Chris Reynolds, Lauren Norvelle, Jessica Niles, Kyle Miller, and Erin Wagner

Last night at Alice Tully Hall, Juilliard presented one of their Songfests, an occasion we never miss. The program, curated by world renowned collaborative pianist Brian Zeger, who just so happens to be the Artistic Director of the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at Juilliard, was one of enormous value for several reasons.

Primarily, we were impressed by the concept of presenting the lives of Clara and Robert Schumann in a theatrically valid way, involving dramatic readings of their letters interspersed with songs that were related to that particular period in their romance. This shed new light on the songs and affected us in a new way.

Clara's letters were brought to vivid life by recent Juilliard graduate Lauren Norvelle who was most remarkable in expressing the young Clara's childhood infatuation with Robert. She was but a pre-teen prodigy when Robert fell deeply in love with her. It was a long courtship since Clara's father was vehemently opposed to the match, even though Robert had been his student; the two were obliged to wait 9 years for Clara's 21st birthday to wed.

Robert's letters were read by Keshav Moodliar, also a Juilliard drama student who keenly expressed Robert's youthful extravagant expressions of love.

Previously known for his piano compositions, 1840 brought forth a torrent of lieder, filled with joy. Apparently, years of separation had made his heart fonder and fonder; the consummation was therefore amplified by the power of ten. Anyone who has yearned for an impossible love will recognize this phenomenon.

The opening duet of the program "Er und Sie" was performed by soprano Jessica Niles and tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole; the subtle dynamics, the sweet voices, and the blended harmonies successfully expressed the joys of mutual love. The boughs of "Der Nussbaum" inclined their delicate heads to kiss in sincere symbolism, tenderly sung by soprano Libby Sokolowski. 

Symbolism was not necessary in "Intermezzo, Op. 39, No. 2" which speaks openly of the singing of the heart. Baritone Kyle Miller gave it a lovely interpretation.

Mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner expressed a woman's youthful infatuation in
"Seit ich ihn gesehen" from Robert's song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben and later she sang of the joys of sharing pregnancy with "Süsser Freund" from the same cycle. Indeed, the Schumann's would have eight children!

"Widmung", so passionately sung by Mr. Miller, was composed as a wedding gift for Clara and Mr. Miller allowed the song to grow in intensity and passion.

Of course, as we all know, there is no "happily ever after" in real life and Robert's early enthusiasm became increasingly manic and his low periods became increasingly black. Unfortunately, in the early 19th c. there was no effective treatment for mental illness and poor Clara was left to cope with a large family, all the while championing Robert's music, performing at the piano, and composing.

The first time we heard her "Liebst du um Schönheit" we thought of it as having been surpassed by Mahler's setting. However, the more we hear it the higher it grows in our estimation and Ms. Niles gave it a lovely performance.  She was similarly effective in Clara's "Er ist gekommen" which seemed filled with anxiety. We heard a sense of loss in Clara's "Ich stand in dunklen Träumen", finely performed by soprano Libby Sokolowski.

Schumann's compositions toward the end of his life are dark. Listening to Mr. Miller's performance of "Der Spielmann" we can take the Hans Christian Andersen text (translated by Adelbert von Chamisso) as more than usually meaningful. "It's hideous for a man to die in this way, When his heart's still young and striving for joy" and "Let none of us go mad: I too am just a poor musician". We can only wonder what kind of visions and hallucinations troubled the unfortunate musical genius. Similarly, we can only wonder what his artistic output might have been if treatment had been available.

We were sitting close enough to the stage to feel as if we were participating in a salon at the Schumann's home. Singers and actors were all onstage together; it was a highly effective way of presenting the music. Mr. Zeger shared the accompanying duties with the super-talented Chris Reynolds. It was an altogether worthwhile evening that fulfilled both as theater and concert.

© meche kroop

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