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, December 12, 2015


Daniel Fung and Matthew Swensen

If we don't get weepy when hearing Franz Schubert's masterpiece Die Schöne Müllerin, we generally feel there is something wrong with the singer. There was nothing wrong with the performance given by tenor Matthew Swensen at Juilliard yesterday.  And there was everything right about it.

We live in an epoch of "whatever"; not even a teenage "emo" boy would kill himself over a romantic disappointment.  But Wilhelm Müller's German Romantic poetry has genuine pathos; it is not manipulative like so much that we hear today that is over-sentimentalized

Müller's poetry rhymes and scans; it inspired some of Schubert's most cherished melodies. When we hear contemporary composers utilizing contemporary texts, we cannot exult.

From the very first poem we can identify with a young man filled with enthusiasm over the possibilities he will encounter on his wanderjahre. We can feel excited when he finds work and when he falls in love. We can share his exultation over winning his love object. We hurt when he is tossed aside for a more promising love object.  We feel compassion when he seeks comfort in nature, even as he plans to end his life.  We feel all this because of Schubert's prodigious gifts. But we feel it only when the singer immerses himself in the text and the music.

This was accomplished by Mr. Swenson. No emotion was left unexplored.  It was not just that each song has a different emotional tone; there are shifts within each song and changes from major to minor as the moodily sensitive narrator has new thoughts about his situation, each producing a new feeling.

We couldn't help recalling what we learned from Ms. DiDonato's master class yesterday--the part about feeling the harmonies under the vocal line and coloring it appropriately. We particularly admired, in "Am Feierabend",  the way he colored the words of the Miller and the words of the Miller's daughter.

With a performance this intense, one tends to forget all about technique; the artistry trumps everything. Still, we noticed that Mr. Swensen has an unusual instrument.  It is not that sweet tenor we hear in so many young voices--the Nemorino, the Fenton, the Tamino.  No, this is a more substantial voice with a lot of texture and overtones. Perhaps we have a Duke here, a Rodolfo, an Alfredo.

Shall we indulge in a bit of nit-picking? To take this performance from a 4 star to a 5 star, we would want Mr. Swensen to stop holding onto the piano.  In all fairness, he did not do it all that much; but it made a big difference every time he released his hold and stepped forward to the audience. And just one more thing.  On occasion, he tended to drop the final consonant.  Otherwise, his German was excellent and the vowels were accurate.  But we like the final crisp endings to a word and a sentence. We speculate that he was so involved emotionally that he forgot.

As far as Daniel Fung's collaborative piano, he played it as well as one would hope. Although they performed very well as a team, we missed the sense that the two of them were breathing together. It is a small point but we are looking for that fifth star!

(c) meche kroop

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