We well recall the 2007 Metropolitan Nation Council Auditions when tenor Alek Shrader won after dazzling the judges and astonishing the audience with his aria from Fille du Regiment. It's almost exactly five years down the road and he still astonishes. Last night's performance at Weill Recital Hall could be described in one word as operatic.
With the extraordinarily gifted piano partner Keun-A Lee, a program was planned that had something for everyone and allowed Mr. Shrader to show off his skills in five languages. The opener was Rossini's frisky "La danza"; Mr. Shrader exploded onto the stage without waiting for welcoming applause and launched the song with an abundance of gesture and dancing about the stage, illuminating the exultation and excitement as we have never before heard. One had no doubt which ladies he found attractive and which one was dull. This was followed by Bellini's deeply sad "La Ricordanza" in which Mr. Shrader's attention to the long arching phrases made the suffering particularly poignant. When he exults, he truly exults and when he suffers, he truly suffers. He appeared to lose himself in the mood of each song.
The set of bel canto songs was followed by three of Gabriel Fauré's gems; we especially liked the way Mr. Shrader pulled in his oars and illuminated the delicate phrases of "Lydia". Next he sang Richard Strauss' Vier Lieder; he was so persuasive in "Cäcilie" that we were prepared to incline our heart, come to him and live with him, as the words of the song suggest. But, it was in the delicate "Morgen" that he pulled back on the high octane delivery and made the most impression. It was at this point that we realized how his intensity may get in his own way at times and that some subtlety can be a welcome relief. Less may indeed be more.
Ms. Lee had a perfect opportunity to show her stuff at this juncture when she began Joaquín Turina's Poema en forma de canciones with the haunting "Dedicatoria". We enjoyed Mr. Shrader's "Los dos miedos" and "Las locas por amor" the best and it seemed likely that he enjoyed performing them the most as well. Actually he seems most comfortable in Spanish and we were most receptive to the language having just attended two consecutive events by Opera Hispanica.
Vicente Martín y Soler's "Oh ciel!" from La Cosa Rara gave the artist an opportunity to have his way with fioritura and what a way it was! Then he moved on to perform the world premiere of Iain Bell's The Undying Splendour, settings of tragic texts by John William Streets about World War I. The writing was spare as suited the text. Next we heard three witty/silly songs by Virgil Thomson and, to close the program Ms. Lee performed a lovely piano solo by Ethelbert Nevin and was joined by Mr. Shrader for some of Nevin's Victorian parlor songs that were simple and direct. The final one "Nocturne" was particularly charming; a white rose climbing the trellis under a lady's window is seen by the poet (Thomas Bailey Aldrich) as a bold lover daring to climb Romeo's ladder. What a charming metaphor!
As encore, we got "If You've Only Got a Moustache" a humorous song by Stephen Foster, performed with both artists sporting bushy fake moustaches. This brought the evening to a rousing end.
We have often be disappointed by singers who "park and bark". No one would accuse Mr. Shrader of this flaw. If anything we would like to see him "kick it down a notch". His acting adds greatly to the song delivery but there is entirely too much grimacing and excessive "indicating". For example, during the Thomson song "Was this face the cause?" he found it necessary to count on his fingers the "nine bad" and "yet one good in ten". It reminded us of signing for the hearing impaired. It seems churlish to be nit-picking after such a fine recital but we would also like to see Mr. Shrader lower his gaze and allow the audience to connect with him; for the entire evening he seemed to be singing to the Family Circle, of which the Weill Recital Hall has none. Please let us know if your experience was similar to ours.
(c) meche kroop