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.

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Henry Meyer-Oertel, Ulrich Roman Murtfeld, Phillip Solomon, Katherina Hagopian, and Babette Hierholzer in German Forum concert

Last night's German Forum evening comprised mostly works by Franz Schubert, at the request of outgoing president Henry Meyer-Oertel who has served so very well and deserved the standing ovation and honorary plaque several times over. 

The German Forum continues to do extremely well in fulfilling their mission--that of providing performance opportunities here in New York City for young artists from the German-speaking world. We have been introduced to a number of outstanding performers whose careers we continue to follow. To be chosen by the German Forum is a great honor and can initiate a pathway to success here in New York City.

For us, the highlight of the evening was a work we always love and always wish to hear more of--"Der Hirt auf dem Felsen". This piece of chamber music paints a vivid picture of a young shepherd in the Alps who is consumed by loneliness and longing for his sweetheart.  Schubert composed the work in 1828, toward the end of his tragically short life.

It was most likely composed upon request by a soprano friend of his who wanted a showpiece. Schubert made good use of text by Wilhelm Muller who also provided text for Schubert's two beloved song cycles, "Winterreise" and "Die Schone Mullerin". The parallels between Schubert's life and that of Muller is interesting in that both lived at the same time and both tragically died young.

The work opens with a gorgeous theme in the clarinet, here played with maximum artistry by Phillip Solomon, an undergraduate at Juilliard. The theme bounces between clarinet and soprano; they echo one another reflecting the text in which the shepherd has only his own echo for company.

The soprano we heard was the lovely Katherina Hagopian who has studied in both Germany and the USA, notably at Mannes College.  (She has made quite a name for herself internationally, but we first became acquainted with her work three years ago when she sang the role of Alcina.)  The work offered many opportunities to show off her artistry of phrasing and expression of moods. The vocal part reminded us of yodeling with its difficult wide skips, all of which Ms. Hagopian negotiated successfully.

The central section, the darkest, was set to text by Karl August Varnhagen von Ense. Fortunately, the final section ends cheerily by announcing the coming of Spring when perhaps the young man will be able to reunite with his beloved.

The gorgeous melodies in the voice and clarinet were laid over a background of arpeggiated chords in the piano which reminded us of Schubert's Standchen D.889 which was composed 2 years earlier. German Forum Artistic Director Babette Hierholzer performed it beautifully.

She also was the collaborative pianist for three songs by Schubert sung by Ms. Hagopian. By way of introduction we learned that Robert Schumann idolized Schubert with great eloquence, saying that Schubert wrote a diary with music instead of words.

In "Gretchen am Spinnrade" Ms. Hagopian expressed all of the romantic fantasies haunting the heroine of Goethe's Faust, showing her delusional side to great effect. Meanwhile, it was up to Ms. Hierholzer to convey the obsessive turning of the spinning wheel.

"Der Zwerg" is just too gruesome for our taste but we always love Schubert's "Ave Maria" although we would have preferred it sung off the book. We speculated that Ms. Hagopian might have had a problem with the Latin; otherwise we can find no excuse. Schubert loved his arpeggi and so do we, especially when played as sensitively as Ms. Hierholzer did!

Guest pianist Ulrich Roman Murtfeld opened the program with Schubert's "Impromptu in F Minor" which has a wealth of melodic material. We particularly enjoyed the lyrical second theme. In the third theme it sounded as if the left hand and the right were having a conversation.

The closing piece on the program was Schubert's "Fantasie in F Minor"--Schubert did seem to have an affinity for that key. This is a work for piano four hands and Ms. Hierholzer played the treble part with Mr. Murtfeld playing the bass part. The first theme was haunting and the work became increasingly dense in texture.  The return of the first theme was as welcome to us as the coming of Spring was to the shepherd in "Das Hirt auf dem Felsen".  Of course, Schubert being Schubert, the theme was reworked but always recognizable and satisfying.

The non-Schubert pieces played by Mr. Murtfeld including some charming short pieces by Edward MacDowell, a 19th c. American composer who studied in Germany. Two excerpts from his Woodland Sketches (new to us but now well liked) included "To a Wild Rose" and the peacefully floating "To a Water Lily". His "Moto Perpetuo" from Twelve Virtuoso Studies was a piece to keep the fingers busy!

We remember Louis Moreau Gottschalk from the music used for several ballets performed by The Joffrey Ballet.  Last night, Mr. Murtfeld played "The Banjo", also called "Fantaisie Grotesque". We found nothing grotesque about it but it surely did sound like the picking of a banjo.

It was an altogether delightful program. The evening was capped by the presentation of a plaque to President Henry Meyer-Oertel, acknowledging his long and devoted service to the German Forum. Under his leadership, 70 events have been presented and a couple hundred artists introduced. He will be dearly missed but the German Forum will continue under new leadership and we will continue to attend these wonderful programs.

(c) meche kroop

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