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, November 3, 2019


Collaborative Pianist Arlene Shrut and winners of the Gerda Lissner Foundation Lieder/Song Competition

Young singers need all the help they can get in building their careers and the Gerda Lissner Foundation is unmatched in this role. There are yearly competitions for both opera and for song, with generous awards for the winners. Being present to hear these young artists in concert after the competitions is a special treat. It's an even tastier treat to witness their development as they achieve the fame they deserve. When we have time to read bios of successful singers we cannot fail to notice how many of them have begun their success by winning these competitions.

Friday's recital of 2019 winners presented ten young singers of great promise, all accompanied by the legendary collaborative pianist Arlene Shrut who matches her accompaniment to the special skills of each young artist and also takes into account the great variety of material they choose to present. Every singer was superb, each in a different way.

Tenor Eric Finbarr Carey had us trembling in our seat with a searing performance of Schubert's "Der Erlkönig". Goethe's text is tragic and dramatic; in contrast with so much contemporary poetry, it does beg to be set to music. What we look for in an effective performance is good storytelling. This means that the singer must play the part of the narrator with neutral coloring. When the story quotes the father, he must darken and age the coloration; when he quotes the child, he must lighten and whiten the color; and when he voices the titular Erlkönig he must begin seductively and end horrifically. Mr. Carey held us spellbound, sustaining the tension throughout a pause before the final grim "tod"!

Baritone Jonathan McCullough struck us as a complete artist with a mature round sound that conveyed everything one could possibly say about a man watching his beloved marry someone else. Mahler based this song (the first lied of his cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) on Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of folk poetry. Beginning in the mournful key of D-minor, it makes a brief excursion into a verse in the major mode as the poet witnesses the joys of nature. Then it sinks back into minor, since his grief blocks his appreciation of these joys. Mr. McCullough illuminated every nuance.

Soprano Monica Dewey injected Rachmaninoff's "Noch'yu v sadu u menya" with an anguished coloration that was deeply affecting. With brilliant tone she sang of a weeping willow and a sad girl. It was the last song Rachmaninoff wrote before leaving Russia and perhaps that it why he chose that sad story.

Coloratura soprano Alexia Mate selected a French song that was well chosen to show off her bright tone, her lovely French, and her flexibility. Dell'Acqua's "Villanelle" offers a lovely legato passage and some challenging staccato passages with trills and arpeggi, all successfully negotiated. There were also some melismatic passages. Mentally, we cast Ms. Mate as Queen of the Night! Sometimes,we just cannot keep from extrapolating from a sole performance to a singer's future.

With the kind of German diction one only hears from a native born German singer, Dennis Chmelensky gave a perfect performance of Schubert's "Willkommen und Abschied", the setting of a text by Goethe. Schubert's music and Mr. Chmelensky's singing gave us all the anticipation and fulfillment and also the pain of parting. He made good use of variation of tempo and dynamics to tell the tale. We sincerely believe that any singer who wants to sing lieder should master a few of Schubert's prodigious output of over 600 songs.

Tenor Alec Carlson has a sizable voice with the right weight and intensity to convey the despair of "Der Atlas", one of Schubert's more morose songs. This one is a setting of a text by Heinrich Heine and, although it is not among our favorite Schubert songs, Mr. Carlson's dramatic delivery put us right in the middle of Atlas' burdensome task.

Baritone Dongwei Shen made a daring choice of singing a Chinese song by Zaiyi Lu called "Overlooking my Homeland". Most Americans lack a frame of reference for an appreciation of this eminently singable language and the Chinese penchant for the retention of melody. No 12-tone serialism for them, thank goodness! The song offered opportunities for emotional connection which Mr. Chen conveyed successfully by means of vocal color, gesture, and dynamics. 

There was no translation but as we listened we felt pain and longing in our heart for something we were about to lose. After the concert, we asked Mr. Shen about the meaning of the song and it is about life passing by us. What a mark of success for a singer to convey such meaning in another language. Incidentally, we had a similar experience once in Bhutan of knowing what a song was about. Oh, the miracle of music!

Another baritone, Sung Shin, chose to sing Tosti's "L'ultima canzone", another song about a man losing his sweetheart. It's our favorite Tosti song because we love the alternation of moods and melodies in the verses; this feature gave Mr. Shin an opportunity to show off his impressive artistry. His instrument has an appealing tweedy texture and his Italianate vowels were scented with garlic. He shaped his phrases with great artistry, making use of occasional rubato. There was also some nice melismatic singing on "ah". We loved it!

Mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner's selection was the final one of Barber's Hermit Songs--"The Desire for Hermitage". The cycle is a setting of songs from Irish monasteries written down between the 8th and 13th c. We confess that these are not our favorite songs, although we do like the tranquil "The Monk and His Cat", the slightly irreverent "The Heavenly Banquet", and the short but bawdy "Promiscuity". But Ms. Wagner's choice was of a more ascetic bent, although we picked up a subtext of spiritual fervor. She sang it well and had a beautiful ringing top. Still, we would like to hear her sing in a different language.

Mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova, whom we just heard at a concert of winners of the Premiere Opera Foundation Competition, sang a beautiful song by Rimsky-Korsakov called "The Clouds Begin to Scatter", the setting of text by Pushkin. Ms. Sidorova, as we noted in our review a couple days ago, has a lovely instrument that she knows how to use. If only she could loosen up and use her body! We hoped that singing in her own language would work to her advantage but were a bit disappointed. We wanted more connection with the audience as well as more connection with the song. We hope that someone at her conservatory will work with her on this; it's like a pot on the stove with all good ingredients that just needs some heat to release the aromas and flavors! Tap into your Russian passion Anastasiia! Go for it!

Host for the evening was the engaging Midge Woolsey who introduced each singer and told us the theme of the song after it was sung. We would have preferred the description before it was sung.

The concert was produced in association with the Liederkranz Foundation.

© meche kroop

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