BWW Review: MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION at Zankel Hall Shows What Makes America Great

BWW Review: MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION at Zankel Hall Shows What Makes America Great

BWW Review: MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION at Zankel Hall Shows What Makes America Great
Mezzo J'Nai Bridges and Warren Jones
on piano. Credit: Pete Checchia

When Joyce DiDonato brought her "War and Peace" presentation to the main stage at Carnegie Hall last month, it was glorious musically but less-than-cheery philosophically--and that was before the guy in the White House started taking aim at arts and education funding. (As if trying to kill off anything that brings art and beauty into the world were a good thing...) Taking the stage at Carnegie's Zankel Hall on Saturday, at THE MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION, Marilyn Horne was in a feistier frame of mind about the fight for our hearts, minds and souls--though she admitted that she had yet to figure out a way for her personally to take the battle where it needs to go. It seemed to me that the evening's program, with wonderful emerging singers and the great guest taking part, was a pretty good way to get the ball rolling.

The concert was the culmination of "The Song Continues 2017," the 20th anniversary of a festival started by Horne's foundation (now presented by the Weill Music Institute as part of the Marilyn Horne legacy at Carnegie Hall) that celebrates the art of the vocal recital. The quartet of excellent singers (soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone) were as different from one another as were the composers represented in the concert--a program that was about beauty and art, about the continuity of talent and how the past leads to the future. This, in the end, is what makes us great.

BWW Review: MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION at Zankel Hall Shows What Makes America Great
Baritone Eugene Villanueva and Warren
Jones on piano. Photo: Pete Checchia

Baritone Eugene Villanueva's strong, expressive voice did wonders with the opening pieces by Brahms. Yes, Brahms's "Alte liebe" ("Old love"), remembering past sorrow in love, was on the somber side but Villanueva's compelling presentation and the wonderful piano of Warren Jones (I hesitate to call it "accompaniment," since his masterful work was at one with Villanueva, as it was later in the program with J'Nai Bridges) were a joy to hear. No less sad was the composer's "Verzagen" ("Despondency")--"I sit upon the roaring sea looking for peace"--yet the propulsive music projecting the storm-tossed waves rising and falling was fascinating to hear from the pair, with Villanueva's voice plaintive yet firm.

After one more Brahms piece ("Von ewiger liebe" ["Of eternal love"]), an urgent dialogue between a village boy and his girl, Villanueva turned to songs by Hugo Wolf, who injected some welcome humor into the program, which the baritone sang with relish. The first, "Der rattenfanger" ("The Pied Piper") was set to a three-verse poem by Goethe and it crackled with lusty energy, while "Abschied" ("Farewell"), a battle between poet and composer--the singer took on all the roles, happily, of course--and a critic, ending with the former kicking the critic down the stairs. It had a great piano part for Jones, ending with an exaggerated waltz.

As Monty Python might say, "And now for something completely different"--mezzo J'Nai Bridges took on Debussy's "Chansons de Bilitis," a gorgeous three-song cycle about desire, where the singer goes from innocent to careworn in the trio of pieces. Bridges gave a ravishing performance of Debussy's exquisite work--and looked as much in her turquoise gown--that left me gasping for air and grasping for superlatives. She got the textures and the eroticism just right in these songs based on prose poems supposedly the work of a courtesan in ancient Greece in the time of Sappho--the poet from the island of Lesbos. I particularly liked her take on "La chevelure," her telling of her own seduction. Pianist Jones couldn't have been bettered in providing the counterpoint to Bridges' sonorous vocalism. She finished out her section of the program with songs by Bizet and Chausson; the singer was utterly charming in the former, touching and exotic in the latter (even if you had to leave your modern sensibilities at the door).

The other two singers on the program also showed wonderful technique and notable voices but seemed like they might have been better at home in larger venue.

BWW Review: MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION at Zankel Hall Shows What Makes America Great
Soprano Michelle Bradley with Valeriya
Polunina on piano. Credit: Pete Checchia

The quartet of pieces that comprise Strauss's "Vier letzte lieder" ("Four last songs") -which comprised soprano Michelle Bradley's section of the program--have fit the voices of notable sopranos from Kirsten Flagstad (who premiered them in 1950) and Elisabeth Schwartzkopf to the lighter sounds of Lucia Popp, Kiri te Kanawa and Renee Fleming, proving their flexibility to a particular singer's demands. Bradley, who sounded like she has big things ahead of her, didn't quite make the songs work for me in the intimate confines of Zankel Hall (with only 599 seats). Her soaring, full-voiced rendition of the intimate songs felt like they could have filled the main stage at Carnegie--or the Met--with no problem. I'd like to hear her again under different circumstances, where her thoughtful interpretative skills (evident here) could be put to better use. Valeriya Polunina's accompaniment served her well.

BWW Review: MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION at Zankel Hall Shows What Makes America Great
Tenor Mario Chang with Ken Noda
on piano. Photo: Pete Checchia

I had a similar reaction to tenor Mario Chang, though his choice of repertoire for the evening made them work better for me than Bradley's Strauss. Still, it was hard to forget for a moment how big his voice seemed in the songs about various aspects of love--even if only about love of country. I don't generally think of Verdi when it comes to songs, and "L'esule" ("Exile") didn't really change that. It certainly sounded like an aria that could have been taken from one of his earlier operas and Chang sang it with soaring delectation, with Ken Noda on piano. Tosti's "Ideale" seemed temperamentally like a good choice for the tenor and he sang it with feeling, though he pushed it a bit hard, but I thought Turina's "Poemas en forma de canciones" ("Poems in the form of songs") were just right, with their soaring vocal lines and playful accompaniment.

BWW Review: MARILYN HORNE SONG CELEBRATION at Zankel Hall Shows What Makes America Great
Tenor Javier Camarena with Gerald Martin
Moore on piano. Photo: Pete Checchia

The evening concluded with a special guest, that fine tenor, Javier Camarena. It was a reminder of the true breadth that artists can muster, even if we tend to pigeonhole them in areas they do spectacularly well. New York audiences know Camarena mainly for his great comic chops and high-flying flexibility--in Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA and BARBIERE and Donizetti's DON PASQUALE--but the evening gave him the opportunity to show his dramatic side (on the way to next month's I PURITANI at the Met).

He caressed Liszt's TRE SONNETI DI PETRARCA, showing his passionate side along with his ability to create the purist lyricism. These songs (really arias) were incredibly difficult, though he made them look otherwise, with their restlessly shifting harmonies and demanding outbursts with high notes--which called upon all the skills and breath control that he has shown in the bel canto repertoire, but in a different way. It was a performance, with Gerald Martin Moore on piano, that the audience greeted wildly, and should have provided the program's emerging artists with a peek into the possibilities of future--if only the world would cooperate.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.