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, January 26, 2018


Master Teacher Graham Johnson

What Graham Johnson doesn't know about the art of the song would fit in a thimble.  How can one distill such wisdom into a few paragraphs! 

Last night's master class was part of The Song Continues 2018, a festival celebrating the art of the vocal recital.  For the past twenty years we have been enjoying this festival initiated by the the Marilyn Horne Foundation and now presented by the Weill Music Institute, as part of the Marilyn Horne legacy at Carnegie Hall.

With his plummy British accent Mr. Johnson shared his vast experience with four young singers. From our standpoint, the most interesting information regarded the differences of style necessary to do justice to Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Brahms. All of the selections offered were sung in German and we are pleased that all of the students sang in fine German, with only an occasional lapse in the area of the final "ch".

Regarding the final singer on the program, superb mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller had the benefit of a German-speaking mother and was thereby so at ease with the language that she was able to devote her attention elsewhere, giving a splendid performance of two songs by Brahms.

Unlike the obsessive attention to markings by Hugo Wolf, Brahms took a freer approach and left much to the artistry of the singer in terms of rubato and spontaneous shaping. Ms. Miller's collaborative pianist Richard Jeric was encouraged to produce more effulgence in the accompaniment. The texts dealt with unrequited love and the freedom sounded just right.

Two songs by Hugo Wolf were performed by the splendid soprano Devony Smith, accompanied by Christina Giuca. The pair worked well together in these settings of texts by Goethe from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Indeed, Mr. Johnson brought with him a book of that epoch that contained inserts of the songs! He marked this book as one that strongly influenced German literature of the 19th c.

Wolf's music, as opposed to the gentle Schubert setting, portrays Mignon in all her high strung glory, an innocent creature abused and betrayed, as vulnerable as Ophelia in Hamlet.  Mr. Johnson saw this portrayal of psychological trauma as an anticipation of the discoveries of Freud. He is as well informed about literature and history as he is about music!

Ms. Smith captured this near madness and vulnerability very well; having translated the songs herself contributed to her ability to convey the feelings of Goethe's text. We particularly enjoyed the pianistic artistry of Ms. Giuca.

Hannah Rose Kidwell has a sizable soprano instrument with an interesting vibrato that makes one sit up and take notice. Her selections were by Robert Schumann whose composition of lieder took off along with his romance with Clara. There were many opportunities for variations of color in his "Widmung" (text by Rückert) which needs to be sung with intimacy, as if directed toward only one person, not the entire audience.

The tessitura is low for a soprano but Ms. Kidwell handled it well. Mr. Johnson made a good case for humility before the text and encouraged the pianist Andrew King to set the stage for the singer. He made a good point that vocal color comes from the imagination. Justinus Kerner's text for "Stille Tränen" tells us about the inner sadness of those who seem happy on the outside. This is a very different song from "Widmung"!

Songs by Mozart and Schubert made up the remainder of the evening. Mr. Johnson wants to hear Mozart with very little pedal and then, only for color.  "Abendempfindung" is profound and the color must be one of regret and acceptance, not bombastic tragedy. It should not be romanticized.

Mezzo-soprano Veronika Anissimova was accompanied for her performance by Cameron Richardson Eames, who was coached to keep the piano light when accompanying a light voice. It takes discipline to know what not to include in a performance.  One might say "less is more".

Schubert's "Im Frühling" actually follows a "theme and variations" model. The mood of regretful acceptance is quite similar to the Mozart. The performance needed to be bigger without being louder. More energy and more confidence were called for.  

Some general remarks by Mr. Johnson are well worth remembering.  In the performance of art song, the text takes precedence. The singer must emphasize human understanding and compassion for the human condition. The singer must be a spokesperson for the poet and foster a conjunction of the text and the music. Each poet and each composer is different.

There is no conductor to obey in this art form. The singer must make a full investment and maintain ownership of the performance, whilst exchanging energy with the pianist. The performance must be in the service of the poet and the composer. This requires empathy with the past. The singer is filtering the words and the music through the self.

As we reflect back on lieder performances that have grabbed us by the throat and made us feel the full range of human feeling, we must acknowledge that the singer seemed but a conduit and we experienced the text as speaking directly to us in the most intimate fashion.

This must be the most difficult art form!

There will be another master class tonight so stay tuned.  No doubt Renée Fleming will have a very different but equally valuable approach.

(c) meche kroop

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