Friends of Chamber Music and Chamber Music Northwest reviews: Two Winter Journeys

Editor’s note: In the past couple weeks, Portland experienced a rare confluence of Winter Journeys — no, not the snow- and ice-strewn commutes of this year’s Snowpocalypse, but two performances by renowned musicians of the same classic work: Franz Schubert’s 1828 song cycle. ArtsWatch’s Katie Taylor and Jana Hanchett accompanied one journey each; here are their travel diaries.

Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish performed at Chamber Music Northwest's Winter Festival. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish performed at Chamber Music Northwest’s Winter Festival. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

 Scarlata and Kalish: Missing marrow

“Now I hope you all come back after the first half,” Chamber Music Northwest violinist Ida Kavafian told the audience just before baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Gilbert Kalish performed Schubert’s song cycle Winter Journey (Winterreise) on January 25. “Don’t do anything terrible to yourself during intermission; life is not over.”

An awkward pause with a few nervous titters followed, but Kavafian got it right: listeners and performers alike should expect to leave a performance of this song cycle emotionally wrung out. Unfortunately, it never happened for me.

Schubert’s musical setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller depicts the psychological breakdown of a rejected lover. Within the song cycle, the lover, facing imminent rejection by his beloved, secretly leaves her house in the dead of winter to stumble through snow-covered paths, sobbing over past memories and shouting out delusional visions. The cycle ends with the image of a homeless organ grinder standing barefoot on an icy street, listlessly turning his instrument’s handle while a dog growls, ready to attack.

While listening to Scarlata and Kalish’s performance, instead of feeling tempted to swallow a bullet, I ended up experiencing a major insecurity complex: Was it the performers? Was it me? My lack of emotional connection to the performance worried me and sent me on a hunt for reasons.

Scarlata and Kalish’s overall drawback was a lack of clear and intense focus. While the lover’s emotions are all over the map, the vocalist’s sound must not be erratic. The vocalist must be like a therapist who re-articulates in an organized fashion the jumbled storm going on inside the lover, thus capturing the emotional intensity in a manner that both lover and listener can identify with. For example, Scarlata’s excessive use of portamento made the lover sound more tipsy than psychologically spun out. If instead notes had been dead on, the lover’s victimizing behaviors would have felt more threatening for their clarity of execution.

At times Scarlata would mix a lot of air into his sound to create a whispering effect, like in “The Linden Tree” when the tree branches rustle in the wind. This technique took the focus away from Schubert’s melody. If instead the same phrase were sung pianissimo and on the breath, those rattling leaves would have achieved far greater whisper-like potency.

If performers of Wintereisse do not focus their sound on depicting real psychological bleakness, the performance will turn into either a yawn-producing exercise or a laughable parody. An example of the latter unfortunately happened in “The Stormy Morning,” which because of Scarlata’s diaphragmatic punching and Kalish’s pushing tempo felt more like comic opera instead of savage betrayal.

Clearly a lot of people enjoyed this concert; a small contingent in the front stood up immediately at the end in ovation. Beautiful moments certainly happened, like Scarlata’s gorgeously clear timbre on the line “When will I hold my beloved in my arms?” in “A Dream of Springtime” and his experimental lack of vibrato on the last time singing “And I wander on and on / Restlessly in search of rest” in “The Signpost.” Kalish’s well-thought-out transitions between songs provided necessary cohesion for the whole cycle.

Was the lack of overall effect the performers’ fault, or did I as a listener struggle to hear? As a listener, my ear got hung up on the muddied sounds, which were not aided by the overly resonant acoustics of Kaul Auditorium. Scarlata’s articulations splattered in Kaul Auditorium, and the piano’s sound also had a long decay time.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t feel much; to find a different opinion, I turned to my neighbors to discuss, but the main thing that impressed them was Scarlata’s memory of all the words. I did not get a sense that the cycle emotionally moved them either; in fact, during really tense moments within the concert, the audience member next to me laughed every so often at the lyrics.

Still searching for reasons behind my (lack of) reaction, I considered that perhaps I might not have been in a properly receptive state. I had very little time to relax in my seat prior to the show as Chamber Music Northwest experienced a few technical difficulties in retrieving people’s tickets from its lone computer, and they ran out of programs, so it was only after the performance that I was able to snag one and read Portland composer and Reed College professor David Schiff’s well-written essay on the pieces performed in their Winter Festival. Without this mental preparation, perhaps I was not ready to listen.

A very wise and passionate concert pianist told me recently, in regard to his own performance career, that audience members come to concerts primarily seeking nourishment from the performer’s emotional energy. On the surface, this metaphor seems legitimate: you, as a listener with a complex palette, sit down at your favorite restaurant and choose a meal that delights your senses, promotes conversation, and as a necessary bonus, keeps your body ticking.

But this metaphor also puts me in mind of the listener as leech sucking on another living organism. I would like to believe that performers and listeners are symbiotic (cue pushing nerdy glasses back up nose), and sometimes this does happen. Sound, like food, is such an intimate part of who we are that our responses to it are in turns validating, voracious, and violent. This little leech of a listener left wanting more marrow from Scarlata and Kalish, while Scarlata and Kalish, exhausted by such a feat of musicianship, probably just wanted to get some rest. — JANA HANCHETT

Jana Hanchett is a Portland pianist, teacher, and writer.

Pianist Julius Drake and singer Gerald Finley performed Schubert's Winter Journey song cycle. Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke.

Pianist Julius Drake and singer Gerald Finley also performed Schubert’s Winter Journey song cycle.

Finley & Drake: Pure, bleak magic

Usually, when the show dies on stage, it’s not a good thing — but in the case of Gerald Finley and Julius Drake’s Winter Journey (Winterreise) it was pure, bleak magic.

The last work of composer Franz Schubert, whose life ended at 31 after a six-year struggle with syphilis, the song cycle tells the story of a winter’s journey by a broken-hearted young poet that ends in death. On the surface, the cycle of poems by Wilhelm Müller is typical German romanticism, but in Schubert’s hands, the fickle beloved becomes life itself and the winter’s journey his long leavetaking of it.

Together, baritone Finley and pianist Drake managed to achieve that holy grail of art song recitalists, a state of absolute freedom paired with absolute control, where drama and flawless technical delivery somehow dwell together without one wrestling the other to the ground.

I know Finley primarily from his operatic work.  A specialist in Mozart, he also created key roles in two recent operas by contemporary composers: J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Howard K. Stern in Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole. This was the first time I had heard Drake, whose career as a recital pianist has found him paired with a shimmering list of vocal artists including Thomas Allen, Felicity Lott, Joyce DiDonato and Simon Keelyside.

Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall auditorium, despite its recent renovation, still has a dry, unforgiving acoustic. Fortunately, neither Finley nor Drake needed forgiveness, and the barren acoustic made the impact of their astonishing performance, presented by Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music, that much more immediate.

Canadian Finley looks as Irish as Spike Jones but has the rich, dark, endlessly mutable voice of a great German recitalist. He quickly revealed himself to be my favorite kind of singer – the type whose singing is like speech. Any rhapsodizing that occurred, such as the splendid howl on the word “weep” (“…And weep at the grave of my hopes”) at the end of “Last Hope” (“Letze Hoffnung”), had expressive purpose.

Finley’s breath and dynamic control are phenomenal. His top is easy, capable of vanishing quiet or rich, throbbing warmth; his low notes handled with bass-like ease. His voice has something of a bass color, but without the heaviness and none of the edge baritone voices can sometimes have — smooth as good whiskey and note-perfect, except for the very occasional interpretive choice for slightly off-pitch or breathy delivery.

Like Finley, Drake’s musical choices consistently had expressive purpose. He showed an uncanny ability to convey a sense of space and distance. A glistening tree heard first at close range receded into the distance — a memory from past springtimes had the remote quality of old tintypes capturing long-dead beauty. A good ear for dynamics played a part in this, but Drake’s subtle and inventive pacing and phrasing choices were what really set him apart. The dynamically uneven staccato opening of “Last Hope” conveys both the tenuous grasp of the leaf on its windblown branch and the anxiety of the poet that it might fall, carrying his final hope with it. During the dizzying, gently ragged flight of “The Crow” (“Die Krähe”), I was half convinced the piano was just a hair out of tune. That’s a good trick.

I’ve seen Drake and Finley’s penchant for lengthy dramatic pauses and slowdowns called out for criticism by others (their Winter Journey lasted two to six minutes longer than the average). These moments tended to remind me of the almost trance-like state that dogs enter when they slow-walk under low-lying branches. It drew attention to itself at times, but for the most part, I thought it felt very organic, and often served to magnify or extend an emotional moment in the music.

One of the cycle’s greatest challenges is its unrelenting bleakness, and if I have one criticism of this performance it’s that Finley and Drake passed up the few opportunities to express the giddy lightness that can overtake doomed people (‘Happy through the world alone/Facing wind and weather!’). But really, together, the performers explored so many different shades of emotional darkness that nothing was really wanting.

The journey ends with the famously stark “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” (“Der Leiermann”), in which the nearly frozen protagonist sees an old street performer out in the snow alone (death himself?) and asks himself if he should follow. Drake began the song with a wonderful numb-fingered reluctance and Finley sang in an otherworldly yet strangely conversational hush. In the end, when the decision was made to follow, it was as if we all actually saw the life go out of them both. The audience waited maybe a full minute while the performers were absolutely still on stage, looking steadily more and more remote from life, then we all burst into thunderous applause. It was one of the few times in Portland that I felt like a standing ovation was really merited.

Hyperion will release Finley and Drake’s recording of Winterreise in March. I knocked over the timid and weak to get one of the 50 copies Friends of Chamber Music brought to sell post-show and am very glad I did. Finley and Drake’s recording (different in numerous subtle ways from the live version) edges out my previous long-time favorite from legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore (Prades, 1955). This will be the duo’s ninth recording.

Winter Journey is the eighth installment in a remarkable 75th anniversary season for Friends of Chamber Music, which has already seen performances from Kronos Quartet and the Vienna Boy’s Choir and looks forward still to appearances by Chanticleer and Fireworks, among others. The Finley-Drake performance also marks the latest entry in FOCM’s Vocal Arts Series, begun in 2006 under the inspired direction of Pat Zagelow.

Zagelow has accomplished something remarkable in her 23 years with FOCM. She consistently manages to bring artists at the very peak of their careers to Portland, the programming’s constant thread being a very high level of artistry — gimmicks will not serve. This recital was no exception. —KATIE TAYLOR

Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director of Opera Theater Oregon.

Were you at either the Scarlata/Kalish or Finley/Drake performance? Or both? What was your experience? What thoughts do you have on the performer-listener relationship?

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