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Jennifer Check, Young Concert Artists

Additional Commentary by Jens F. Laurson:

Anyone familiar with the Young Concert Artists knows that they have a history of bringing the next generation of classical stars to us, before they have had their breakthrough. Richard Goode, Ruth Laredo, Murray Perahia, Pinchas Zukerman, the Tokyo String Quartet, Emanuel Ax, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Dawn Upshaw, Fazil Say, Freddy Kempf (and, for that matter, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) are all living proof of their ability to pick talent. Soprano Jennifer Check has many admirable qualities, but judging from her performance last Sunday don't expect her name to be mentioned in one breath with the above artists. For that, her performance was too spotty.

Robert Schumann's Frauenliebe & Leben started the program and proved a good tone, fairly good diction, a fair pronunciation as well as small moments of really odd coloration (a patchy marbled or hazy spot here and there), moments where a natural tone was suddenly supplanted by an operatic outburst. There were insecure moments in aiming at exposed notes and entries and wobbles in fast passages. The mastery of long lines promised great Richard Strauss, waiting on the second half of the program. It came after Purcell's The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation, which quite frankly, I thought to be forgettable as her style of singing didn't seem to suit it at all. (It reminded me how my mother might experiment in the kitchen and serve tempura - but somehow manages to sneak pig knuckles in, anyway.) The Strauss was good, indeed, although I should think that Mlle. Check is capable of a more engaging performance of songs like Befreit, Allerseelen, Ruhe, meine Seele, and Cäcilie. Sadly, she is very limited in the range of her expressions (not unlike Alessandra Marc and Jane Eaglen, although not possessing their voices) which makes watching the recital a less engaging experience than hearing it.

Three American songs ("I can't be talkin' of love" - John Woods Duke, "Come ready and see me" - Richard Hundley, and "Dreaming" - Lori Laitman) suggested that vocally this might be her territory. Alas, not being able to move or act does hamper the artist here more visibly, still (Ionarts remembers a wonderful performance of Christine Antenbring of Bernstein's "I can cook, too" that set the standard for such works). Laura Ward accompanied capably without adding or detracting from Ms. Check's offerings. No matter the lukewarm results this time, we'll be back for flutist Dora Seres on March 14th and, most importantly, for cellist Efe Baltacigil's recital in which he will premiere a cello work by YCA Composer-In-Residence Benjamin C.S. Boyle - a name you will reckognize if you read ionarts often... as we have continuously extolled the virtues of his compositions even if we have never felt entirely comfortable with so much talent at the disposal of so young a man. That concert will take place on April 25.
The Young Concert Artists of Washington presented the winner of their most recent competition, soprano Jennifer Check, in a recital in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Sunday afternoon. Ms. Check has won several competitions, held small roles on stage and in recordings, and has a voice of ample volume when she wants it. On the basis of one recital, I would expect her to be most successful in dramatic soprano roles in Verdi and Puccini, but there is not much subtlety here yet.

This point came across in the opening piece, or rather the work that constituted the entire, rather short first half, Robert Schumann's song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben. Check's voice was often far too blunt a weapon for this interior monologue, poems in a woman's voice by Adalbert von Chamisso. I am not always sure that Check understood the words she was singing, or if she did, her range of expression -- vocal and otherwise -- was just not broad enough to communicate it. She rushed through the heartbreaking suspensions of the last phrase of each strophe of the first song, Seit ich ihn gesehen, music that returns at the tragic end of the cycle and that should be full of significance. All of the songs had pretty much the same character, although Chamisso's words follow the narrator through bewilderment, adoration, and despair.

It became worse because of Check's lack of involvement in the piano's postlude after the final song, Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan. The narrator's beloved is dead, and she retreats into a world of fantasy ("Ich zieh mich in mein Innres still zurück, / Der Schleier fällt"). The music of the first song, which recounted the moment of her falling in love with him, returns wordless, the cloak of denial in which the narrator wraps herself. Check looked like she was just waiting for the accompaniment to stop. In the first piece of the second half, Purcell's The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation, she showed little understanding of Baroque style (no ornamentation, for example), but I am spoiled by the sounds made by Baroque specialists. I first heard this piece performed live by Renée Fleming last year, a performance that was hardly more baroqueux but at least had dramatic punch. Check's rendition did, too, especially the pealing cries of "Gabriel!," as the Virgin hopes for help from her one-time angelic visitor, now nowhere to be seen.

Check peaked, I thought, in the four Richard Strauss songs on the program, music appropriate to the scope of her voice (the end of Cäcilie was one of the loudest, most powerful moments in the recital) and that she seemed to understand the most, musically and textually. Allerseelen and Befreit were particularly lovely. Although they are unrelated to each other in terms of their composition, their common tone of mourning dovetailed nicely with the end of the Schumann cycle.

Other Review:

Joan Reinthaler, Soprano Jennifer Check, Wording It Just Right (Washington Post, January 24, 2006)

Anne Midgette, A Soprano Who Is Immersed in Schumann and Strauss (New York Times, November 24, 2005)
The Strauss mitigated the damage done to my appreciation of Check's musical taste after the music that ended the recital. John Woods Duke's I Can't Be Talkin' of Love was the least offensive, but the very soprano gesture of leaning up against the piano like a torch singer was a bad sign. Sure enough, Richard Hundley's Come Ready and See Me took us right into the world of music theater. It could only be made worse by the vulgarity of Lori Laitman's Dreaming, which makes fun of singers "dreaming of a great review." This song probably has a bright future ahead of it as a jazzy encore trifle. Yawn.

In Check's actual encore, she came back to what should be her home territory, verismo, with an aria from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur (a good opera for Olga Borodina), "Lo son l'umile ancella del Genio creator," Adriana's entrance aria. The world of opera today may be more demanding today than at any point in its history. Audiences expect not only strong, beautiful voices but slender, attractive bodies for those voices. It is enough to say that Ms. Check's weight will unfortunately have a negative impact on her career.


Anonymous said...

YCA is a fantastic organization and has a great track record of identifying great talent. However, I certainly agree that Ms. Check may not live up to the reputations of her predecessors.

JCC of Greater Washington also offers a Young Concert Artists Series in a venue much smaller than the Terrace Theatre. It's interesting to compare the same musicians in different venues, especially when they're still figuring themselves out as artists. Courtenay Budd, the other current YCA soprano, will perform there on April 9. Although she doesn't suffer from the same inherent problems Ms. Check’s fach brings, she is by my ears more in control of her instrument and artistry.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that. I try to include the JCCGW events in our concert schedule. Good to make the connection here.