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.

Friday, October 14, 2016


Bragi Bergthórsson and Evan Fein

Have five years really passed since we heard John Brancy sing in Evan Fein's opera The Raven's Kiss at Juilliard? We remarked at the time that we loved the sound of the Icelandic language and the way Mr. Fein's music reflected the rhythm of it. Since that time, we have only had one other opportunity to hear Icelandic songs at a recital held at the National Opera Center.

How greatly we looked forward to last night's recital at Scandinavian House! Mr. Fein is one of a very few contemporary composers who write melodically and seem to have a feel for vocal line.  Icelandic folk tunes inspired the program we heard last night; there were interesting embellishment of harmonic structure while the austere and chilly sound that is so unique to this music was maintained.

Mr. Fein is a product of Juilliard's graduate program while Icelandic tenor Bragi Bergthórsson was trained at Guildhall School of Music in London. What impressed us most about his instrument was the ability to sing pianissimo and still preserve a gorgeous vibrato. We loved the many colors on his vocal palette.

The program began and ended with selections from Ny islensk thjódlög, Op. 9 with text written by the librettist of The Raven's Kiss, Thorvaldur David Kristjánsson. (Here we apologize to Icelandic readers for our approximation of the Icelandic spelling which does not exist on our keyboard).

The first song "Úti á hafi" was the most cheerful and straightforward song we would hear all evening and seemed unusual in its positive outlook.  There is no storm on this sea, just some optimistic hard-working sailors looking forward to arriving home with a good catch and being greeted by wives and children.

"Kvöldsólarlag" sings of cherished memories and Mr. B. sang it with the tenderest of tones.  But we heard a lot of sadness and wondered if the loved one had died. The accompaniment here was beautifully simple.

"Sólstafir", on the other hand, offered Mr. Fein the opportunity to create some elaborate and captivating arpeggios. "Upp og nidur" allowed Mr. B. to portray an inebriated fellow, which singers seem to love to do. (Perhaps this is the singer's equivalent of the actor's "death scene".) The song would have been right at home in the program we reviewed last night!

The final four selections from this cycle were composed on the road in Iceland as offerings for the hosts who provided for Mr. Fein and the aforementioned poet Thor Kristjánsson in their travels.  (Se non è vero è ben trovato!)  We are just imagining Mr. Fein driving through the barren geography of this island nation with a piano in the backseat! In any case, the songs are lovely and meant to be "new Icelandic folk songs".

In "Astarstjörnur Tvær", Mr. B.'s vocal line involved humming. We most loved the sweet melody of the final song "Sál mín svifur burt".

We also heard the world premiere of Mr. Fein's Hjartasláttur with text by Ragnar Jónasson who was present for the occasion.  His writing for piano was original with disturbing harmonies in "Úti" and some rumbling at the lower end of the keyboard in "Snjóblinda". "Dimma" had an ominous sound, utilizing the uppermost and lowermost keys on the piano.

There was a set of frightening "lullabies" which Mr. Fein commented on amusingly, telling us that Icelandic children go to bed without an argument to avoid hearing them! Our favorite was "Bí, bí og blaka". As Brahms did, Mr. Fein arranged them artistically, blurring the boundary between folk song and art song.

We also heard music by other composers--another world premiere called "Einbúinn" by Joseph Hallman involving some unusual vocal effects with muffled voice. 

Halldór Smárason's "Un dur" was a profoundly meditative piece on love and death with text by Steinn Steinarr.

Three selections by Jón Leifs were also performed. The first was an heroic Viking song and the other two were tender spiritual songs in which Mr. Fein sang along a fifth below Mr. B. That was quite lovely to hear!

And finally we heard a folk song which is sung in bars and which was arranged by Mr. Fein. "Krummavisur" is about a raven starving in a frozen landscape. We concluded that song comes from culture and culture comes from geography.  Anyone who has visited this fascinating country will recall that about 300,000 people inhabit an island about the size of England--and that most of the landscape is lunar and uninhabitable. In summer there is no night and in winter there is no day. No wonder the music is strange and beautiful!

(c) meche kroop

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