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, February 14, 2015


Nathaniel Olson (photo courtesy of Carnegie Hall)
Sometimes we can tell everything there is to know about a singer from the first set of songs.  In the case of the fine young baritone Nathaniel Olson, presented at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall, we didn't really "get" him until the encores, of which there were two.

In the first, Mr. Olson sang "Die Neugierige" from Franz Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin and he sang it with all the youthful wonder and tenderness that is demanded by Wilhelm Müller's text.  We wanted to hear him sing the entire cycle.

The second encore was Aaron Copland's setting of an agrarian protest song from the post-Civil War period entitled "He's a dodger". This folk song was composed to discredit a presidential candidate who has been long forgotten.  But the song remains and Mr. Olson introduced it with a wonderfully original and persuasive preamble that revealed the personality that was rather hidden during the rest of the program.  The song pokes fun at the dishonesty of lawyers, politicians, salesmen, ministers and lovers--indeed, of everyone.

As far as the main body of the program, there was nothing to criticize except for the insecurity and inconsistency of the pronunciation of the final "g" and "ch" in German--a flaw commonly heard in American singers.  Sometimes the sound is omitted and sometimes it comes out as "ick". This should be simple to correct.

And yet, there was nothing in the program that thrilled us.  We wondered if Mr. Olson really loved the songs he sang.  In the program notes, he told of loving German lieder and Swedish songs since childhood.  So why then did his opening set of Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 24  strike us as bland?  We adore Schumann and expected to be thrilled.  We were not.

Again, nothing was bad, and Mr. Olson clearly showed a lot of connection with his able accompanist and mentor Kevin Murphy.  Was it us?  Our companion was likewise unmoved by these poems of love yearned for, love anticipated, and love lost.  The lovely melody of "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden" gave way to bitterness.  We heard it but we weren't "feeling" it.

The early 20th c. Swedish composer Ture Rangström set texts by many different poets but seemed to have a penchant for the unhappy. The songs fell on our ears with no more pleasure than the Schumann. Although Mr. Olson himself did the translation, we did not feel the connection we wanted to feel.

It is a rare recital in which we prefer the American songs but we thought Mr. Olson did justice to the lovely "Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster.  Many singers who have been associated with Marilyn Horne's program have paid tribute to her by including it in their programs and it is always lovely to hear.

Ned Rorem's "Early in the Morning", the setting of a text by Robert Silliman Hillyer, lent a note of charm and good feeling to the evening and Mr. Olson sang it beautifully with his pleasing baritone.  For once, we could visualize the circumstance and feel the pleasure of the poet.

Similarly, Aaron Copland's setting of the traditional folk song "The Little Horses" continued the pleasant feeling.  Mr. Olson and Mr. Murphy took the tempo very slowly allowing us to savor every word, and Mr. Olson exhibited a fine messa di voce.

We were unable to savor the set of Hanns Eisler songs from Ernste Gesänge which were filled with negativity, perhaps not the best choice of material.  The piano writing is jumpy and dissonant and the vocal line verges on the bombastic.

Of the Four Songs, Op. 13 by Samuel Barber, we most enjoyed the lighthearted "The Secrets of the Old" by William Butler Yeats in which three women are relishing the certain privileges of advanced years--the memories and the gossip.

We are holding open our opinion of Mr. Olson, hoping that the next time he presents a recital, he will let loose and reveal his personality. Perhaps someone told him to take it seriously but we'd like to tell him to lighten up!

© meche kroop

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