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, March 23, 2024


Shawn Chang and Erin Wagner

We have had 5 years to watch the artistic growth of mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner, an exciting artist whose worth has been noted and appreciated by both Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song and by Young Concert Artists. We recall admiring her performance as The Mother in Britten's Albert Herring  during her days at Manhattan School of Music. We remember some Barber also (his Hermitage Songs) at a Gerda Lissner Competition Winner's Recital. There was some lovely Schumann at a Juilliard Songfest (Frauenlieben und Leben). We decided she was someone to watch.

And then Covid interrupted everyone's career! But Ms. Wagner bounced back with some impressive Strauss ("Sein wir wieder gut" from Ariadne auf Naxos) impressing us with a strong upper register and winning her a major award from The George and Nora London Foundation.  And since then, some most enjoyable contributions to a NYFOS program and this Young Concert Artists solo recital at Merkin Hall.

Of course, there have been many more honors and prizes and a stint at the Houston Grand Opera Studio but it is only our loss that we did not get to hear all of them.

Dear Reader, we are very particular in our preferences and what stood out for us at this YCA recital was a quartet of songs by Franz Schubert whose lieder, in our opinion, have never been equalled in melodic invention, storytelling, correspondence between voice and piano, and just basic listenability. Although we love the songs of Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler, if we had to choose just one, it would be Schubert.

Four of his songs were sung in sets of two. In "Wehmut", Mattaus von Collin's  text speaks of the melancholy which tinges the appreciation of  the beauty of nature. In "Herbst", the poet (Ludwig Rellstab) compares the loss of love with the autumnal losses in nature. What impressed us was how Ms. Wagner's vocal coloration encompassed sorrow, anxiety, and also the joys of nature.

Goethe's text for "Hoffnung" inspired Schubert to write a jaunty melody that provided some relief to our saddening mood and allowed Ms. Wagner's lighter coloration to give us cheer. However, our very favorite of the four songs was "Frühlingsglaube" in which the poet (Johann Ludwig Uhland) used imagery of the coming Spring to lighten his tormented heart. And just listen to the way Schubert's melody echoed the rhyme scheme of A-A-B, C-C-B! This familiar melody took possession of our brain and Ms. Wagner's lovely voice has echoed in our ear ever since.

We do not care for most 20th c. poetry and decry the unmelodic music it has dictated. And thus we did not enjoy the two songs by the Ukrainian composer Stefania Turkewich nearly as much, although Ms. Wagner injected them with intense drama. 

One cannot fail to admire the spirit of Viktor Ullmann who managed to write music under the harsh rule of the Nazi regime whilst confined to the concentration camp at Teresienstadt. Still, we found his cycle of sonnets with text by the 16th c. poet Louïze Labe to be a bit long, dwelling on a broken heart like a friend who goes on and on, making one try very hard to listen whilst not really relating.  After making note of Ms. Wagner's fine French, we found our attention turning to the piano writing which collaborative pianist Shawn Chang performed with a light sweet touch.

Thankfully, we got to hear more Schubert in the second half of the program and found it curious that the text he chose (by Johann Mayrhofer) utilized the same rhyme scheme as Uhland did. Again we observed how this dictates a most singable melodic line. What was interesting about the performance was that we just heard the same piece "Iphigenia" sung the night before by a soprano who  handled it quite differently. Both young singers are admirable artists and how wonderful it is to hear different interpretations in close temporal proximity. Ms. Wagner made her plaintive pleas to the gods with beautiful and apt piano accompaniment.

In "Die Götter Griechenlands"  Schiller used a different rhyme scheme (A-B-A-B-A-B)  and we loved the way Schubert gave the same motif to the voice and the piano in alteration. And we loved the way Ms. Wagner made the most of it.

Us Now  was composed by Mr. Chang, a setting of text by Jacqueline Suskin who seems to have discovered the philosophy of Existentialism, a philosophy which has guided our very own life. But the text came across as a lecture. Frankly, we listen to music in order to feel, not to think. After the concert, we read Ms. Wagner's lengthy and thoughtful essay about the current situation in the world, hence "Everything Must Change" as the title of the concert. Of course, it would be a fine thing if music could change the world but we just don't see it. We prefer such themes as "Springtime" with a singer giving us appropriate songs that fill us with hope (like Rachmaninoff's "Rushing Waters").

Although we are in agreement with her opinions on the state of the world we were unable to understand the choice of music and felt as if we failed to grasp something. We checked this out with our art loving companion, with whom we have had discussions on the state and fate of the world, and learned that our opinion was shared.

Two unusual pieces ended the program. One was a song by a band called Radiohead with whom we were unacquainted. The lyrics of "Everything In Its Right Place" were nonsensical and obsessively repetitious and the melody was fragmented; but apparently it  meant something to the artists since Mr. Chang did the arrangement and Ms. Wagner had great fun singing it. We looked up the original online and didn't enjoy that either.

The second one sounded better to our ears. It was a bluesy song called, of course, "Everything Must Change"-- by another artist unfamiliar to us named Bernard Ighner. It was also arranged by Mr. Chang and we loved the simplicity of the melody and lyrics. Indeed, it had the immediacy that we love in Schubert. Of course, we looked that up online also and enjoyed the original recording. But not as much as Schubert!

We also needed to look up the encore song-- Randy Newman's  "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and, although popular music is not our fach, we can see why people love it and respond to the melody and lyrics. It was brave of Ms. Wagner to "cover" it after hearing Bette Midler's version and Nina Simone's.

© meche kroop


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