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.

Monday, November 26, 2018


Michael Fennelly, Alyson Cambridge, Constantine Maroulis, and Jennifer Kahmar Curreri
leading the Port Jervis Children's Choir onstage at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall

You will, dear reader, pardon us for departing from our customary habit of writing about the pianist last. Sometimes we are familiar with an artist in a certain guise and then see them in a new light (hear them in a new sound?). We have known Michael Fennelly for years as a collaborative pianist and have always admired his sensitive partnership with a variety of young singers.

Last night we heard him perform as a soloist, a performance in which both he and the piano virtually levitated off the stage of Weill Recital Hall. He performed his own arrangement of George Gershwin's 1924 Rhapsody in Blue. At the work's premiere Gershwin himself played the piano accompanied by a jazz band. He didn't write down the piano part until the performance ended! We wonder what Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky thought of the work; they were present at the premiere!

There have been many iterations and orchestrations but we have never heard the work the way we heard it last night. The audience, as one, jumped to their collective feet and whooped!  Although not a "classical" theme and variations format, there were several contrasting themes, each with its own variations. There was an astonishing variety of tempi, rhythm, and dynamics.

This would have made a rousing opener or finale for the concert of the Athena Music Foundation (of which Mr. Fennelly is the founder) which starred the famous soprano Alyson Cambridge, known to opera goers everywhere. We had heard her twice before. Two years ago she dazzled us with "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Russalka at a New Amsterdam Opera Gala and last year she created the role of Sally Hemmings--a highly believable and sympathetic creation-- at one of Andrew Ousley's Crypt Sessions.

Last night we got a clearer picture of just how versatile this dazzling artist is. The mixed program comprised an appetizer of art songs, a main course of Barber, and lots of spirituals, American musical theater and Christmas music for dessert, with an opera aria for seasoning.

In every case, Ms. Cambridge showed a compelling stage presence, looking equally glamorous in a pale pink tulle gown and a sexy red one, thus reflecting her vocal versatility. For our taste, the Shumann ("Widmung"), Schubert ("Ave Maria"), and Richard Strauss ("Zueignung") remained our favorites. There was so much vocal and gestural expressivity and passion that translations were unnecessary. Moreover, there is a deeply affecting vibrato in her instrument. We almost failed to mention the opening "Come All Ye Songsters" by Purcell which revealed Ms. Cambridge's facility with coloratura.

The songs of Fernando J. Obradors, whilst written in the 20th c., reveal no lack of melody and Ms. Cambridge made the most of the lively humor in "Al Amor", the sensuality of "Del cabello más sutil" and the charm of "Chiquitita la novia" which begins and ends with a gorgeous vocalise. Mr. Fennelly supplied the irony at the piano. The selection were drawn from Obradors' Canciones Clásicas Españolas.

Samuel Barber's mid-20th c.  Hermit Songs have never been among our favorites but, performed by Ms. Cambridge, we think we "got" them.  We particularly enjoyed the good humor of "The Heavenly Banquet", expressed equally by piano and voice; the short and worldly-wise "Promiscuity"; and the homey "The Monk and His Cat"--a song of mutuality, acceptance, and partnership. We also liked the haunting piano introduction to "The Desire for Hermitage".

Spirituals can be rousing for both singer and audience. "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" was a case in point.  Ms. Cambridge felt it and so did the audience.  It contrasted well with the gentle "There is a Balm in Gilead". 

We remain convinced the American Musical Theater is as valid as opera, especially when sung by someone this gifted. If there were any categorical differences between the three heroines of opera and musical theater, we failed to distinguish them. Carmen's self declaration in the "Habanera" from the Bizet opera of the same name; Nettie from Richard Rogers' Carousel singing "You'll Never Walk Alone"; and Julie from Jerome Kern's Showboat singing "Can't Help Lovin' That Man O' Mine".  These are all complex women singing powerful songs about different kinds of love. 

A special treat was in store when the Port Jervis Children's Choir, conducted by Jennifer Kahmar Curreri, came onstage and performed "Deck the Nutcracker Hall", an arrangement of Tchaikovsky's music for the ballet Nutcracker. Still, we preferred the children's performance of "Sing Alleluia", arranged by Victor C. Johnson.

As if that were not enough entertainment, there was a guest vocalist from Broadway named Constantine Maroulis who toured with Ms. Cambridge in Rocktopia. He joined Ms. Cambridge for a selection of Christmas music, delighting the audience.

We enjoyed the variety of the evening called ""Tis the Sunday: Songs of the Season" and we enjoyed introducing a "newbie" to the world of unamplified vocal and pianistic artistry. It is always rewarding to witness the pleasure good music can give.

(c) meche kroop

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