Siren songs: Divas descend on Oregon

Classical vocal recitals pair singers and pianists on Oregon stages

by JEFF WINSLOW

Friends of Chamber Music is about to present the annual solo gig in its admirable Vocal Arts Series this Sunday afternoon at 3:00 PM in Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University, and as always, has lined up a world-class soloist. Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung has performed in dozens of the world’s finest opera houses and symphony halls, and with dozens of the world’s top directors and conductors. Her recordings have garnered three Grammy awards. Although most of her recording and performance activity has been with orchestra, she is no stranger to the recital stage, and FOCM has a knack for finding operatic singers who are versatile enough to make intimate partnerships with piano only, so operaphobes likely have little to fear.

Michelle DeYoung performs Sunday at Portland State University.

Michelle DeYoung performs Sunday afternoon at Portland State University.

Granted, the program of music by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Joseph Marx has lots of dramatic numbers – and, lots of hard work for pianist Kevin Murphy! But it also includes Manuel de Falla’s subtle, incomparable masterpiece of arrangement, “Seven Spanish Folk Songs.” Few songs in all the literature speak to the heart so simply and directly (and, you may find as I do, with almost unbearable sadness), as “Asturiana.” Don’t worry, the other songs in the set run the emotional gamut, and you’ll no doubt feel like laughing at times too. (ArtsWatch readers use coupon code “Brahms” to save $10 per ticket.)

If this doesn’t satisfy your lust for pairing opera singers with pianists, check out the upcoming Portland Opera Resident Artist show, on Tuesday, March 15, 7:00 PM at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. Soprano Katrina Galka and mezzo soprano Abigail Dock will perform songs by Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, Francis Poulenc, and the complete “Summer Nights” by Hector Berlioz, as well as a tribute to Judy Garland featuring American standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers.

Estelí Gomez performed in Portland and Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Estelí Gomez performed in Portland and Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Oregon doesn’t seem to attract many touring classical solo singers outside of opera. If not for FOCM’s vocal series and the occasional Oregon Symphony program (OSO is starting off its 2016-2017 season with a bang by hosting Renée Fleming in a return visit), they might be a real rarity. Fortunately for lovers of what is sometimes called “art song,” a number of homegrown events go on, sometimes just under the radar. Over the past several months, I’ve been able to attend three that included songs I love as well as songs rarely heard. A fourth featured Esteli Gomez, who has her own Grammy as part of the ultra-contemporary a cappella group Roomful of Teeth, singing freshly written songs by University of Oregon students accompanied by UO student musicians.

Natasha Semenoff performed at Portland's Old Church.

Natasha Semenoff performed at Portland’s Old Church.

The evening before Halloween at Portland’s Old Church, aspiring operatic diva Natasha Semenoff, accompanied on piano by recent Portland arrival Maria Klyutkina-Harmon, presented an unusual recital of Russian art song. We heard works by Piotr Tchaikovsky, Sergey Rachmaninoff, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who in Portland is far more famous for lending his name to a coffee house than for writing songs. Nonetheless, the evening proved there’s no reason for Russians to take a back seat to the French and Germans who dominated 19th century songwriting. The point would have been made more emphatically, however, if Russia’s most original and distinctive songs of the period, by Modest Mussorgsky, had been included. Also, Semenoff’s voice is more suited to big operas and opera houses than these subtle offerings in such a small and resonant venue. Her loudest phrases were almost painful, and she far outstripped the ability of a mere concert grand piano, even fully open, to support her. It didn’t help that Klyutkina-Harmon, though hardly unexpressive, seemed to be playing to fill a more intimate space. Still, Semenoff has a more attractive voice and quite a bit more accuracy than some singers in recent major Portland Opera roles. May her career flourish in that direction.

French Feast

Valery Saul sang Debussy at Classical Revolution PDX last summer.

Accompanied by Kira Whiting, Valery Saul sang Debussy at Classical Revolution PDX last summer.

The next Wednesday I found my way by whispered publicity through chockablock parking and meandering students to the Mago Hunt Recital Hall at University of Portland for what turned out to be an extraordinarily pleasing lunchtime recital of French art songs. Unfortunately I arrived too late to catch Laura Thoreson in Maurice Ravel’s set of Greek folk songs, or her opening Gabriel Fauré duet with Valery Saul. Happily, I settled into my seat just in time for Saul’s delicious interpretations of Claude Debussy’s settings of four Paul Verlaine poems plus “Beautiful Evening” by a favorite poet of the composer’s early years, Paul Bourget. My only criticism is that, here and there, I wondered if transposing the score to a slightly lower key would allow a more intimate tone on the highest notes. The barely concealed eroticism of “This Is Ecstasy,” the insistent dull pain of “Tears Fall in My Heart,” the tender yet erotic sparkle of “Green,” and the more ambiguous delights of “Muted (En Sourdine)” as well as the Bourget were each showcased as if by a different character.

Just as vitally expressive was pianist Kira Whiting, who seems to understand the Debussyan pedal and who was also gratifyingly thoroughly prepared. I just wish she had played out a little more; she was accompanying a strong voice in a small space and more supporting oomph was needed. Still, they struck a happier balance and made a much tighter partnership than Friday’s pair.

Laura Thoreson sings with Portland Baroque Orchestra next weekend. Photo: Jenica Lemmons.

Laura Thoreson sings with Portland Baroque Orchestra next weekend. Photo: Jenica Lemmons.

Thoreson is a mezzo, like Saul, but the two voices are so different as to hardly be in competition. Each could be described as “rich” in a different way. Saul’s is lush yet well-focused, and gleams a tad more; Thoreson’s is paradoxically both smokier, and purer in the sense that her vibrato comes across as more subtle. Thoreson (who sings music by J.C. Bach with Portland Baroque Orchestra next weekend and with The Ensemble March 19-20) was an absolute delight in Francis Poulenc’s set of songs on four arch poems, maybe better called sarcasms, by Guillaume Apollinaire. Her voice nimbly brought out each nuance of meaning and her facial expressions were priceless – exactly as if she were in an animated conversation and not a bit overdone. The two mezzos finally joined in the athletic Fauré duet, “Tarantella,” where the composer pits them in competition tight as on any NASCAR track. But with these two, there was no danger of a crash.

That same evening, the indefatigable Whiting again did piano honors, accompanying well-established Portland soprano Janice Johnson in a full two-hour program, “Night Songs,” at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church. Whiting was again expressive and essentially flawless in an even more demanding program than earlier in the day, and again I wanted to hear more. She is in no way a weak player, but partnering with a soprano like Johnson, who has much to give and isn’t shy about giving it, is not the time for the proverbial quiet strength. A better balance was struck when well-known Portland cellist David Eby joined in, and when the Arnica String Quartet harmoniously joined Whiting and Johnson for Ernest Chausson’s “Chanson Perpetuelle” (which might best be translated as “The Same Old Story”), Johnson’s voice at last seemed to rise out of a mass of sound equal to it.

This is not to say Johnson overpowered the venue, even in her high notes where one might most worry about it. On the contrary, she was mindful of the reverberant acoustics and took care not to cast herself into an overly operatic role. Highlights did include Reynaldo Hahn’s stormy “In the Night” and Joseph Marx’s superheated “Nocturne”, but also Brahms’s almost painfully intimate “Ever lighter grows my slumber” and a particular favorite of mine, Debussy’s wonderfully atmospheric “Moonlight” (“Clair de Lune,” on the Verlaine poem, not directly related to Debussy’s much better known solo piano work). Tempo is tricky in this song and Johnson’s and Whiting’s timing verged on the miraculous.

Dark Thoughts

Esteli Gomez has workshopped University of Oregon student vocal works with their composers several times now, and we in Portland are fortunate that they all share the results with us and don’t keep them hidden in Eugene, as nice as that city is. This time, on a late January evening at the Old Church, we heard ten songs by eight composers, some who doubled as musicians in the varied chamber accompaniments, which included flute, alto flute, clarinet, and all the usual strings (but no piano this time around). It seems like quite a variety, but in some ways there was surprisingly little. Most of the texts were dark, full of references to death, pain and sorrow, and most of the songs were in an expressionist style reminiscent of the Second Viennese School, though without that school’s neurotic avoidance of harmonic consonance. Robert Kyr, renowned composer and head of the UO music department, told me afterwards their students are writing in a wide variety of styles, but that was hard to imagine from this sampling.

Estelí Gomez sang new music by University of Oregon composers at Portland's Old Church and Eugene's Beall Concert Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Estelí Gomez sang new music by University of Oregon composers at Portland’s Old Church and Eugene’s Beall Concert Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Once past these surface matters, however, there was much to admire in the students’ deft handling of their materials. They moved between consonance and dissonance with a naturalness that is becoming a hallmark of classical music in the 21st century. No doubt due to the mentoring of Gomez, Kyr and others, none of the songs seemed weak or mere exercises. Several of the lyrics were also written by the composers, and these were equally strong. The very first work, “Smoke Billows” with music and lyrics both by Aidan Ramsay, who was only eight years old as the 21st century dawned, was in many ways the most distinctive. Its thick, evocative atmosphere was built up with many octave doublings and close intervals, using a kind of inverted string quintet – two cellos and a bass instead of the usual violin and viola emphasis. Possibly the most striking moment of the evening came at the end of an Amy Lowell setting by Emily Korzeniewski, when Gomez slowly and softly ascended the vocal heights, only to be overtopped by a clear, beautifully tuned clarinet. The gesture and the blended sound were utterly magical.

Moments like this were enabled by sensitive performances from everyone on stage. Not only were the student performances nearly always convincing, but Gomez has what may be the perfect voice for these works. Her pitch definition within the often complex harmony was crystal clear in every part of her range, even though she sang with a light but pleasingly warm vibrato as is appropriate for solo songs. Her volume also balanced the other musicians and fit the space well. (No doubt performing as part of Roomful of Teeth has given her invaluable experience in these matters.) Good performances of their creations are critical for composers learning their craft, and can be hard to get. I had never heard any of the songs before, but it seemed these student composers could hardly wish for better presentation.

So art song, apart from opera, is alive and well in Portland and Eugene, even if we have to produce it ourselves. And we do, with gusto. Still, the stars of the world’s stages are there for a reason. Michelle DeYoung is one such, and Portlanders owe it to themselves to come hear what she does with the genre this Sunday afternoon. I trust her pianist Kevin Murphy will bring his own gusto to the venture.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, who believes art song is as likely a vehicle for a composer’s best work as a symphony. He serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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