|Michal Biel and Alex Rosen|
The only event that could psych us up as much as the debut of a new opera company is the debut of a new vocal series. A vocal series that highlights the advanced students from the Juilliard Vocal Arts and Collaborative Piano Departments would have been at the top of our wish list. We attend and love the monthly liederabends at Juilliard and the graduation recitals as well. But we are greedy for vocal music and we admire the entrepreneurial spirit that made possible this extra-curricular series of performances.
In this case, two of our favorite Juilliard pianists--Katelan Terrell and Michal Biel-- have coordinated a new series called Songs from the Cellar, having joined forces with Alessandro Pittorino, Executive Director of Arts at Blessed Sacrament where he serves as organist. Indeed, descending the staircase at the 71st St. entrance, one would expect to find oneself in a cellar; but no, we find ourselves in a spacious performing space with a big wide stage and ample seating with excellent sightlines. What a find!
That stage was graced and held last night by bass Alex Rosen and pianist Michal Biel. Mr. Biel, who graduated from Juilliard last year, has played at so many recitals there that we knew exactly what high quality to expect. Mr. Rosen has also been seen, heard, and reviewed by us multiple times but we had yet to hear him perform a complete recital.
Just a couple weeks ago he starred as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor and gave a rousing performance filled with pathos and humor, not to mention full deep round tones. But his appearance was heavily disguised by makeup and a fat suit. Last night he appeared au naturel and we were reminded of how much we had enjoyed his way with Strauss' unique and lesser known songs, his part in Mozart's Requiem and his Monteverdi (with Opera Lafayette).
As soon as Mr. Rosen began singing some serious songs by Schubert, we recalled that we had heard him sing two of them before. When a singer performs songs we don't care for in a way that brings us to favor them, it tends to stick in our memory. The sacred "Grenzen der Menschheit" and the profane "Prometheus" make a fine pair. We especially love Prometheus confronting Zeus with his anger and disappointment. In between the two we heard the sad tale of "Der Atlas", sung with powerful intent and plenty of variety in the piano.
What impresses us most about Mr. Rosen, aside from the textured tone, diction, and phrasing, is his storytelling ability. Each song becomes a mini opera; he pulls us into each story with his involvement in the text. He is not afraid to throw himself into the text with generous gesture and facial expression.
Happily there was plenty of Schubert on the program. The opening set was particularly suited to the storm outdoors which the appreciative audience had braved for the occasion. There were storms at sea, boatmen, rivers and such. When Schubert wrote strophic songs, he must have hoped that they'd find their way into the repertoire of singers like Mr. Rosen who would know how to change the vocal color from one stanza to the next.
We particularly enjoyed "Liebhaber in allen Gestalten", with its romantic text by Goethe, and "Auf der Donau", in which the two outer sections allow the singer some lyrical legato singing, with plenty of contrast for the turmoil in the central section. Mayrhofer's text is introspective and philosophical and the vocal line revealed the beauty of Mr. Rosen's lower register.
In terms of charm, we loved "Fischerweise", von Schlechta's tale of a fisherman and a "wanton" shepherdess who is not going to catch that fish!
Hugo Wolf's songs made an appearance on the program with his Michelangelo Lieder--Wolf in his most serious mood. "Alles endet, was entstehet" gave Mr. Rosen an opportunity to show off his lovely pianissimo. "Fühlt meine Seele das ersehnte Licht" ended with a heart stopping downward scale in the piano.
Just as actors love a good death scene, singers love a good drinking song and Wolf wrote some that were fresh to our ears--"So lang man nünchern ist" and "Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sei". They were fun but there was even more fun on the program.
Francis Poulenc's very first youthful song cycle--Le Bestiaire-- comprised six short poems selected from 30 written by Guillaume Apollinaire about denizens of the world of fauna. We wish that he had set them all, or at least published the additional six about which we have only heard. There is such a variety of rhythm, color, and mood that it takes a singer of Mr. Rosen's caliber to make the most of them. We kid you not, dear reader, but Mr. Rosen actually made a face like a camel and moved like a shrimp!
Our only complaint about this recital was its brevity. But then it's always good to leave your public wanting more. There will indeed be more, but not more of Mr. Rosen who has been snapped up by Les Arts Florissants, Opera Philadelphia, and Cincinnati Opera.
We urge you to get out your calendars and save March 9th, April 15th, and April 28th. We personally know the artists and can guarantee you a splendid evening at a modest cost.
About 6 or 7 years ago, pianist Lachlan Glen launched a series comprising Schubert, all Schubert, and nothing but Schubert lieder. Folks on Planet Opera are still talking about it. We hope that 6 years from now, folks will be talking about Songs from the Cellar! Don't miss out! It's casual, comfortable, artistic...and there are projected titles so one doesn't have to look down at libretti.
(c) meche kroop