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, March 21, 2024


Amber Scherer and Kerrigan Bigelow

Shelen Hughes and Michal Skowronek

Last night at Merkin Hall we had the pleasure of hearing two equally excellent partnerships between two sopranos and their respective collaborative pianists.

The occasion was The Juilliard School's Vocal Arts Honors Recital at which singers who were nominated by their respective teachers were submitted to a panel of esteemed judges. We thought the judges chose well and we enjoyed seeing the rapt faces of the audience, not to mention the radiant pride observed in both Artistic Director Brian Zeger and Steven Blier who has programmed them both in his New York Festival of Song recitals. 

It is significant that each artist chose her own program. Whether they chose to sing works that they love or works that would best show off their unique artistry was impossible to tell; perhaps they are one and the same. In any case, it was a grand opportunity for us to forget about technique and to focus on the various factors that make for a great performance--audience engagement, the ability to get inside a song, and the ability to tell a story with dramatic validity. We personally are not in favor of a singer standing still and accomplishing everything with the voice. We enjoy acting, as long as it seems organic. Of course, we know that gesture and facial expression must be rehearsed but it must appear organic.

The first half of the program introduced us to Juilliard undergraduate Kerrigan Bigelow, whose artistry seems way beyond her years. She opened with a song composed by a fellow Juilliard student by the name of Juliette Di Bello who not only composed  the music but wrote the text herself. "Full of Fire and Future" was in blank verse and full of feelings and imagery. To us she seemed to show promise as a composer.

The rest of Ms. Bigelow's program seemed centered around the theme of women abused by narcissistic men! Was this just an accident? Schubert set Goethe's text, "Gretchen am Spinnrade", with great attention to detail and, although we have heard it countless times, we never tire of it. Ms. Bigelow took us on a tour of poor Gretchen's distracted state and variety of emotions in a most affecting way whilst collaborative pianist Amber Scherer (heard and reviewed last night at a NYFOS concert) let us feel the insistence of the spinning wheel. We truly felt shaken.

The next work was handled in a most original way. The artist began speaking about (we thought) her relationship with her father, which we thought would be an introduction to a song she recalled from her childhood.  But no!  We gradually realized that she was speaking in the voice of Iphegenie as an introduction to the Schubert lied "Iphigenia", a setting of text by Mayrhofen. What a brilliant and original idea, bringing the victim's pain into sharp focus!

The woman in Rebecca Clark's "The Seal Man" is led to her doom by a man too self-absorbed to realize that she is from a species that is not "waterproof". That poor girl was love-bombed into following him blindly into the sea. She drowns.

We read in the bio section that our young artist sang "Try Me Good King" for its composer Libby Larsen and we can only imagine how dazzled Larsen must have been by Ms. Bigelow's riveting performance. We have heard the work before and did not find it at all compelling--just letters from a bunch of unfairly condemned wives of that master narcissist King Henry VIII.

However, our young artist made each doomed Queen into an individual with strong feelings underneath the professed forgiveness and religiosity.  We heard anger, meekness, irony, and bitterness. This lent variety to this rather long work. The only disappointment was not in the performance but in the audience--sheeple who heard one person applaud after each Queen's declaration and found it necessary to join in, thus disturbing the flow of the piece.

And thus it was that soprano Shelén Hughes entered the stage after the intermission and kindly suggested that the audience refrain from applause until each set ended. It's a sad state of affairs that people are so maleducato that they need to be taught basic concert etiquetteWith that problem out of the way we felt free to enjoy the second half of the evening and to revel in the performance of one of our favorite artists. 

We have vague recollections of her undergraduate years at Manhattan School of Music and a performance class taught by Catherine Malfitano and a very vivid recollection of her performance as Snegurechka in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden. We confess to a surge of self-congratulation in recalling our thoughts at the time that she was a true star in the making.  It is always gratifying to watch a singer's growth but especially so when we have recognized their gifts early on.

Accompanied by the excellent collaborative pianist Michal Skowronek who is new to us, she opened with a selection of songs from Banalités by Francis Poulenc sung in superb French and fine Gallic style. Our favorites were the languorous "Hôtel" which contained a most delicate and expressive portamento and the charming "Voyage à Paris". "Sanglots" amounted to fifty shades of sorrow, all colored differentially.

The rest of the program was in Spanish, an excellent choice for this lovely Bolivian artist, and a treat for our ears which find the language as singable as Italian. The cadence of those two languages seems to dictate a most melodic vocal line and we noted that Ms. Hughes performed her own translations.

From Carlos López Buchardo's Canciones argentinas al estilo popular  we heard  the romantic "Vidalito". which conveyed, through the artist, the thrill of love with a touch of pain, as did "Desdichas de mi pasión" and "Jujeña". "Si los hallas" and "Frescas sombras" joined love and nature. Here we noticed how much we enjoyed Mr. Skowronek's light touch on the piano.

The final set, our favorite, comprised Dos Canciones Mexicanas by Manuel Ponce."Serenata Mexicana" is marked by simplicity and a momentary minor note in the piano, showing us that hopefulness is always tinged by anxiety. The famous "Estrellita" makes the anxiety a little more prominent whilst the hopefulness is there in the background. Ms. Hughes captured all the subtleties of the Latin soul.

© meche kroop

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