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.

Sunday, April 7, 2019


William Hicks and Juliana Milin  (photo by meche kroop)

Guest review by Cullen Gandy

The charming, insular neighborhood of the West Village, in New York City, set the scene for an entertaining recital program last night. Julianna Milin and William Hicks were featured as a part of a Vocal Productions NYC concert program, set in quaint St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church. It’s a church at which I was once employed as a staff singer, so when I heard it was to be the setting, I knew that the acoustic of the space would accommodate a range of sensitive music making. It is live enough in the room to be able to hear the very softest of notes, yet (inexplicably) insulated well enough so that a powerful sound can shine through; without becoming overbearing. That was important tonight, because the soprano of the evening was able to draw out some full-bodied singing, in some of opera and art song’s most formidable repertory.

If I had to choose one thing that I appreciated most about soprano Julianna Milin, I think it would be the breath connection she maintained throughout her voice. She managed to make the lower and lower middle sections of her voice as resonant as they needed to be, so that the audience wouldn’t be surprised when the whole breadth of that sound bloomed out into the higher chambers of the voice. This is a complaint that I have had with past sopranos, but none of that applied to her voice.

There was also a timbre quality and a color in the voice that made Milin unique. Repertory like Turandot’s “In questa reggia”, the encore of the evening, and “Dich teure Halle” from Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser are often marked by voices with iconic steely or brassy qualities. They are roles that sound impressive, but perhaps not beautiful. Milin’s vocal quality incorporates a kind of well-projected reediness to it, that gives it a more pleasant bite. It felt like a deep woodwind, but with the projection of a trumpet. Her voice was able to turn me on to the musical beauty of the Strauss and the Wagnerian music, while maintaining the excitement of it.

It was a special treat to see pianist William Hicks as a part of the program. He has served as the vocal coach and repetiteur for some of opera’s most conspicuous voices, such as Pavarotti and Fleming, and has associate conducted at many of opera’s most prestigious houses. In a smaller space, such as this, it was nice to hear all of the things he was able to draw out of the music, especially in his solo piano sections.

The thing that I most enjoyed about Hicks’ playing wasn’t the precision of the notes, but the layers of phrasing he was able to draw out. In his solo pieces "Solace" (Scott Joplin) and "Variazioni dell’aria Nel cor più non mi sento” (Paisiello), the care with which he differentiated between phrases, different iterations of repeats, and between dynamics was a special experience. It was palpable, in the audience, how much his talent added to the enjoyment of the evening.

Periodically, the artists would address the audiences with little anecdotes and introductions to the piece, prior to performing them. Some critical purists don’t like this kind of set up, opting for the continuity of a through-performed recital; by putting all of the expository material in the program notes. I didn’t mind it so much. It brought a nice levity and familiarity with the audience, and the recital wasn’t so long that the speaking made the night drag on.

If I had to nit-pick about things that could have improved the evening, it would be certain parts of how the recital was set up; logistically.  From where I was sitting, there were as many as two or three items on four-foot camera stands between me and the stage. Because of my ADD, the sight of two screens pointing back at me really distracted me the whole time. That being said, I know it is an imperative for artists, as entrepreneurs, to document and market themselves in this way.

The second criticism is with the way the main-billing Strauss set was prepared for the stage. She had a music stand up to chest height, so that added another obstacle between her and the us. As an audience, we want to feel connected in an emotional sense to the artist, and not just a vocal sense. She seemed to be looking a little more into the score than is optimal for that setting. While it is not uncommon to have music onstage with this song set, because of the fact that the music was written to be performed with a large orchestra, the intimacy of the evening would have been much augmented if she perhaps had held or memorized the music.

Finally, I would have loved to have had the translations of the songs (especially) and arias furnished in the program notes. If nobody spoke German, then a lot of the specific dramatic intent of the words would have been lost.

Bottom line, her voice was well-suited to the, mostly German, repertory of the evening, and the pianist was as adept a collaborator as he was a soloist. It was an evening of music that altogether left us with an air of fulfillment; much akin to the way someone feels when they enjoy a satisfying meal.

Good music, fine performances, charming locale…what’s not to like?

(c) meche kroop

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