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.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


Kenneth Merrill, Bénédicte Jourdois, Junseok Hwang, Jared Werlein, Michael McDermott, Katherine Herbert, Libby Sokolowski, and Song Hee Lee

We love reviewing students! The "students" we hear at Juilliard are generally not what one would think of as students since they are already performing around the country, and sometimes even abroad.  But last night we reviewed six first year students. We weren't expecting much but we were astonished at the high caliber of singing we heard. Apparently, a young singers needs to be quite advanced to get accepted at Juilliard.

Each singer had stage presence and a good command of Italian. Each one seemed to know what he/she was singing about and lent appropriate expression to the delivery. The raw material was all there and we hope we will be able to review them as they progress through the impressive training provided by the Juilliard Vocal Arts Department.

As soon as we saw the beautiful harpsichord onstage and saw Kenneth Merrill's name on the program we knew we would be delighted by some Baroque songs which are so suitable to young voices. Mr. Merrill provided the lovely harpsichord accompaniment for the first part of the program.

The excellent Bénédicte Jourdois was the collaborative pianist for the second half of the program which took us into the 19th and 20th c. The two were responsible for preparing and coaching the program. That's just an example of the fine training offered by Juilliard.

The appropriately named soprano Song Hee Lee opened the program with Claudio Monteverdi's "Quel sguardo sdegnosetto" the tempo of which was so fast that we could not understand the words. What we did understand is that this young lady has a voice of crystalline clarity most beautiful at the very top of the register. We liked the way she leaned into the appoggiatura at the end.

She closed the program with "Good Morning Midnight", André Previn's setting of a text by Emily Dickinson. The tempo here was slow enough for us to appreciate her excellent English diction and her ability to make sense of the text.

Soprano Katherine Herbert's bright instrument pleased the ear in "Ah! crudel, il pianto mio" from Händel's Rinaldo. In the fast section, her fioritura was crisp and clean. The ritornello offered some fine embellishments. We particularly enjoyed the trill. It was quite a treat to hear Mr. Merrill's accompaniment augmented by Ana Kim's mellow cello, also heard in several other selections.

Ms. Herbert was also fine in Britten's "The Last Rose of Summer" in which we enjoyed the vocal line, a familiar tune. We like the way she sustained the feeling during the silences; the spaces between the notes are also important!

Soprano Libby Sokolowski evinced an appealing vibrato and a pretty trill in "Credete al mio dolore" from Händel's Alcina. The sound is an exciting one with lots of resonance. Händel's arias do go on but Ms. Sokolowski provided plenty of variety of coloration and dynamics to keep the ear engaged.

Libby Larsen set Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee?" and Ms. Sokolowski made excellent sense of the text, showing another side of her artistry.

Jared Werlein has a pleasing lyrical baritone and gave evidence that he truly understood what he was singing about in Giulio Caccini's "Non ha'l ciel cotanti lumi", a lovely song of deep sentiment that he colored beautifully. 

He also made sense of the text "Youth and Love' by Ralph Vaughan Williams which he brought to a quiet conclusion.

Vivaldi's "La tiranna avversa sorte" from Arsilda, regina di Ponto, is a strange aria in which the harpsichord and cello play staccato with the vocal line written in legato.  Tenor Michael McDermott met that challenge neatly and demonstrated some impressive melismatic singing in a forceful tone suited to the determination of the character. We liked what he did with the dotted rhythm.

Mr. McDermott achieved a different mood, one of quietude, in Charles Ives' "Berceuse". We liked the clarity of enunciation and the expressiveness.

Baritone Junseok Hwang's first number was Purcell's "Music for a While" which we generally associate with a voice belonging to a fach of higher register. Once he let go his grip on the harpsichord and stepped forward toward the audience, his hands were free to gesture which added significantly to his performance. He successfully lightened the weight of his voice for the embellishments and brought the piece to a beautiful end. 

He also sang our favorite Bellini song "Vaga luna che inargenti" which has been running through our head all night long. The texture of his voice was well suited to the song and his gestures were appropriate, once he let go of the piano and stepped forward. It's a small point and once Mr. Hwang realizes how much more he connects when he steps forward, he will have made a giant step forward, so to speak. We are sure his teacher must nag him about it!

We enjoyed the program and the singers and Ms. Kim's cello, which made such a fine addition to the program. We look forward to hearing these singers again and watching them grow.

(c) meche kroop

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