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An Insular Evening

Apologies are in order to anyone else who relied on the Ionarts calendar to learn the location of Saturday night's Four Islands recital at Wolf Trap. I was so happy to see hordes of people streaming into the Filene Center -- classical music is not dead, I thought triumphantly. Of course, I learned that I was supposed to be at the Barns, and the outdoor hall was filling up for Peter, Paul, and Mary, who are apparently back on the stage.

Steven Blier's encyclopedic knowledge of the annals of song has produced many worthy recitals. Indeed, as Blier confided during his accustomed, wry narration, he has piles of future programs stored up on his computer -- let's hope he has a good backup system for his hard drive. The recital Blier hosted, with members of Wolf Trap Opera Company, was organized around four islands, and the dreams of paradise that islands distant and near can inspire. He admitted that the island idea was born in 2002 and that he was just tired of seeing it come up on the screen. That description, although it elicited some laughs from the audience, does not do justice to the happy combination of songs Blier accomplished here, especially in the more serious first half.

For the first island, Ireland, we had four of the Thomas Moore Irish Melodies in their excellent arrangements by Benjamin Britten. The accompaniments in these pieces flow around the original melodies, often almost oblivious to the intended tonal territory, making some of them hauntingly modern. In particular, the bass line in "How Sweet the Answer" rumbles dissonantly, threatening to overturn the lover's song. Two other Irish songs, not arranged by Britten, were of less interest: the affected Irish brogues that crept into the singers' voices in these two selections didn't help.

Steven Blier (left), Lauren McNeese, Jeremy Little, Heidi Stober, Alexander Tall, Four Islands recital, The Barns at Wolf Trap, August 12, 2006
Steven Blier (left), Lauren McNeese, Jeremy Little, Heidi Stober, Alexander Tall, Four Islands recital, The Barns at Wolf Trap, August 12, 2006
The most satisfying island of the evening was Madagascar, evoked in Ravel's sinuous and sometimes spiny Chansons madécasses (1925-1926), set to poetry by Evariste-Désiré de Forges Parny. These songs -- commissioned by American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge -- were entrusted to the strongest singer of the evening, Alexander Tall, whom I admired this June in the title role of Telemann's Orpheus. His tone can be murky sometimes, a little cluttered by vibrato, but his strength, especially in the upper range, will serve him well in the dramatic baritone repertory. The crescendo that he unfolded at the moment of climax in the first song, "Nahandove" -- as explicitly sexual as is to be expected of the proem's 18th-century language -- was thrilling.

Without any build-up, Tall's voice rattled in admonitory exclamation at the opening of the second song, "Aoua!" -- don't trust the whites who live on the shore, shouts the wise native of Madagascar. The third song, "Il est doux," a gentle appreciation of the traditional life of the oisif Madagascar male, had nice contributions from flutist Stephani Stang-McCusker, who also played the piccolo parts, which Ravel often set quite low, giving a brittle, hollow-reed sort of sound. Sadly, this song was tarnished by disastrously played harmonics from the evening's cellist. As a prelude to Madagascar, we heard a couple of songs about the fantasy of islands. One of the highlights of the program was Kurt Weill's "Youkali," a cabaret song composed for the play Marie Galante (lyrics by Roger Fernay) while Weill was in exile in Paris in the 1930s. Soprano Heidi Stober, with admirable French pronunciation and a finely tuned sense of drama, gave a moving performance of this charming, bittersweet tune ("Mais c'est un rêve, une folie, / Il n'y a pas de Youkali!").

Other Reviews:

Mark J. Estren, 'Four Islands' at Wolf Trap (Washington Post, August 14)
Although this program was created several years ago, its third section dealt with an island that has been much in the news recently, Cuba. (Jon Lee Anderson's recent article in The New Yorker is a must-read.) I was less convinced by the singers' Spanish pronunciation, but the adaptable playing of percussionist Joseph Connell added considerable charm. Of course, where else could we end up in this recital but the islands of Manhattan and -- mirabile dictu! -- Long Island. Broadway songs might sometimes make me roll my eyes, but Blier can be trusted to find unusual examples, along with a favorite or two. The two Jerome Kern songs, "Enchanted Train" about the Long Island Express and "Bungalow in Quogue" about a city couple dreaming of the country life, were a stitch. I was delighted to hear "Manhattan" from The Garrick Gaieties by Rodgers and Hart again. This song serenaded the happy couple at the wedding I attended in Brooklyn last month, performed by a top-notch swing band. (Guy and Luisa, just remember: "The city's clamor can never spoil / The dreams of a boy and goil.") The memorable lines "We'll have Manhattan, / The Bronx and Staten / Island too" are only one part of the best Broadway has to offer.

Each year, Wolf Trap Opera Company hosts a group of promising youngish singers, musicians embarking on careers. Mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese, whom guest contributor Richard Fitzgerald lauded in his review of Le Comte Ory, was a vision of elegance in her red gown, with a coffee-rich low and middle range but minor pitch distortion in her highest notes. In the same review, Richard admired soprano Heidi Stober, and she was equally charming and vocally powerful here. Someone at Wolf Trap may have decided it was funny to juxtapose a baritone named Tall with a tenor named Jeremy Little. The latter has an attractive stage presence but a rough-edged and nasal sound that pleased the least. (As one can surmise from our reviews of Wolf Trap Opera this summer, truly fine solo tenors are a rare find.) The ambitious encore, the famous Act IV quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto, was a stretch for this quartet, but only by comparison to fully developed singers. (For an extraordinary example, there is this YouTube video of a 1953 broadcast version, with Roberta Peters, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, and Rise Stevens.)

Steven Blier will be back in Washington this fall, with the New York Festival of Song at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, hosted by Vocal Arts Society (on November 11, 2 pm), featuring soprano Carolyn Betty, mezzo-soprano Sacha Cooke, and tenor Jeremy Little.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you ever get a nose-bleed up there on your high horse?...Jackass
From your comments, it is obvious you have a high opinion of yourself. Typical amateur critic.

At least this anonymous commenter can spell. He or she is apparently defending Lauren McNeese, since it was a search on that singer's name that brought up my review. (Perhaps it is Ms. McNeese herself: no, singers never Google their own names, do they?) The rest of the log information is below. I write under my own name, and I would really like pissy commenters to be honest and do the same.

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