|Cameron Richardson-Eames and Xiaomeng Zhang|
In the several years we have been attending the liederabende at Juilliard we have watched the sparse audience grow to a packed house. And why not! Music lovers have an opportunity to hear some splendid singers accompanied by polished pianists in some compelling programs. And attendance is free!
Last night's program was curated and coached by Gina Levinson and comprised entirely Russian songs. This was an ambitious undertaking for the new semester and the young singers acquitted themselves with poise and some fine performances.
We liked the fact that the singers introduced themselves and said a few words about their program but very much wished that they had spoken more slowly and clearly. Obviously, projecting the spoken voice is a different skill than projecting the sung voice.
Furthermore, we wished that the detestable music stand had been left offstage where it belongs. We do understand that it is early in the semester but a performance is a performance and the main goal is to connect with the audience. The music stand is always an obstacle, even when the singer barely glances at it.
Take for example the difference in communication when soprano Shakèd Bar abandoned the stand for a Tchaikovsky song "To forget so soon" after not reaching us at all with a set of four songs by Prokofiev. All we remember of the Prokofiev is that she was undaunted by a somewhat low tessitura.
When the singer does not reach us we tend to focus on the piano and Richard Fu was marvelous, creating sunlight when called for and pleasing our ears with some thrumming chords in the final Prokofiev and producing a delicate arpeggiated ending in the aforementioned Tchaikovsky song of lost love. At this point Ms. Bar connected by being off-book and we enjoyed the variety in her tone color.
Soprano Lydia Graham achieved a rewarding rapport with five Tchaikovsky songs. We loved the lively Italianate "Pimpinella", with which the singer and her collaborative pianist Brandon Linhard appeared to be having as much fun as we did. We liked the variety with which the pair imbued the delicate "Lullaby in a Storm", the intensity of "I Wish I Could in a Single Word" and the mournfulness of "Not a Word, O My Friend". In the pessimistic "Does the Day Reign?" we heard some admirable ripples in the piano.
Mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio, partnered by pianist Mariel Werner, performed a quintet of songs by Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer responsible for our childhood love of classical music. We wished she had not read the introduction but she was off-book for the songs and impressed us with some lovely melismatic singing in "A Nightingale Sings to a Rose" which just happened to be our favorite song of the set. It makes use of a mode that just might be Phrygian and we hope a reader will clarify that for us. It is a distinctively Eastern sound, like a minor scale on steroids. It tugs at the heart.
We heard it again when the long admired baritone Xiaomeng Zhang performed with pianist Cameron Richardson-Eames the gorgeous and well known Rachmaninoff song "Do Not Sing to Me, My Beauty". Mr. Zhang's melismatic singing and Mr. Richardson-Eames grumbling chords in the lower register conspired to tear at our heart, in spite of the music stand. It seemed to be a crutch that Mr. Zhang really does not need. I hope he will become more secure in this song and abandon the book because it suits his voice well.
We also enjoyed the dynamic variation of "The Dream". He stowed the stand for "In the Silence of the Mysterious Night" and thrilled us with a passionate climax.
He did not need any crutches for a performance of a pair of songs by Sviridov, whose writing managed to avoid the tedium of most 20th c. composers. In "Foreboding" the forceful piano was met by some lovely singing in which Mr. Zhang connected with the text, employing variations in color and dynamics to express the emotions of the text.
"Drawing Near to Izhory" was lively and fun--a perfect way to end the Liederabend.
(c) meche kroop