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.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Thomas Muraco and Sandra Hamaoui

We believe that the first time we heard soprano Sandra Hamaoui perform, it was two years ago with the International Vocal Arts Institute and we were more than usually impressed with her crystalline voice, her warm stage presence, her musicality, and her superb French. We heard her again last summer in an IVAI production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and found her to be even better. We were there when she received an award from Opera Index and also for the Metropolitan Opera National Council. It is not difficult to recognize a superstar in the making and here is one to illuminate the stage.

Last night she appeared as the winner of the Mary Trueman Art Song Vocal Competition, selected from 150 applicants. This is the first year in which the Art Song Preservation Society of New York (Founded and Directed by Blair Boone-Migura) partnered with the Manhattan School of Music for a Spring Into Art Song Festival, which we hope will be an annual event. There was a week of master classes and two recitals but this was the only event we were able to attend.

ASPS and MSM share common goals--those of promoting the art song repertoire and giving opportunities to young artists for education and performance. We all think we know what "art song" is but it helps to be reminded that it is a marriage of poetry to voice and instrumental music. The singer interprets the text and the collaborating instrumentalist interprets the music. Our enjoyment is increased when the voice is a beautiful one and the poetry meaningful.

At last night's recital, Maestro Muraco's artistry married well with that of Ms. Hamaoui. The larger part of the program was French and the language appears to have been imbibed with Ms. Hamaoui's (French) mother's milk. We tend to overlook so many of the shortcomings we've noticed in non-native-French-speakers, as long as we understand the words; but hearing the language sung as it is meant to be is very special indeed.

French art song (chanson) can sometimes sound effete when the singer tries too hard to maintain the long lyrical vocal line while avoiding undue emphasis.  There was not a moment last night in which we perceived this flaw. Ms. Hamaoui has a way of slipping gently into a phrase and ending it with grace. This phrasing appears to be due to exquisite breath control. Final "e's" are evident but evaporate the way Emanuel Villaume taught in a master class we attended.

There is a modesty bordering on self-effacement by which this young singer enters a song and inhabits it. She seems to be visualizing whatever the text describes and we seem to be experiencing the moment through her eyes. Her gestures are spare but always meaningful; there is never any "semaphoring" of the arms.  The voice is well placed and the upward skips well negotiated, never interrupting the line.

These fine qualities were evident throughout the French sets, especially that of Debussy, of which our favorite was "Pierrot" in which Ms. Hamaoui's charm was readily matched by Maestro Muraco's. There were three sets of songs by Poulenc, several settings of texts by Louise Lalanne and Louise de Vilmorin. We don't always grasp poetry but in "Paganini", we could comprehend the many imaginative ways of perceiving a violin.

A set of songs by Rachmaninoff brought out different qualities, i.e. a more expansive and passionate style suited to the rhythms of the Russian language and the intensity of the texts. We did not see the translations until later so we tried to guess what each song was about, or, at least, the emotion of the song. It is testament to the artistry onstage that we were correct in our guesses. 

It is interesting that we of the audience have learned the names of operas and songs whether they be in Italian, French, or German. This never happens in Russian so that any given song appears to have several names, depending upon the translator. So whether we call the song "It's so beautiful" or "It's good to be here", we can revel in the artists' depiction of wonder.

We particularly enjoyed "The Bird Cherry Tree" for its ardent appreciation and "Fountain" for the gorgeous piano of Maestro Muraco and Ms. Hamaoui's dynamic artistry. Her voice began limning the delicate cloud in pianissimo but grew in intensity as the fountain reached its "sacred height" and then returned to delicacy as it "fell back to earth".

Our notes for "At night in my garden" read "a plaint in a minor key". When we read the translation it was about a weeping willow crying bitter tears! Our notes for the final song "A-oo" read "anxious despair"; the song is about someone searching the wilderness for a loved one.  How effectively these two artists conveyed the emotions!

Since the 93-year-old Ned Rorem was being honored, we feel obliged to mention the set of his songs. Gertrude Stein's brief and punchy rhymed couplets in "I Am Rose" inspired a song we enjoyed. Robert Silliman Hillyer's "Early in the Morning" painted a lovely picture of Paris and we could almost taste the croissants. The other songs did not thrill us, but readers will recall that contemporary English poetry and American art songs rarely please us.  That being said, Ms. Hamaoui could sing a laundry list and give us pleasure!

The encore, Poulenc's "Les Chemins de l'Amour" was dedicated to Mr. Blair Boone-Migura and his husband.  It was performed at their wedding. We have no reservations about this song--the melody is unforgettable, the poetry accessible, and the performance delightful!

(c) meche kroop

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