Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato in my Backyard

by Glen Roven Emmy Award winner, composer, lyricist, conductor, pianist, translator and CD Producer. 19.02.2015
As a long-time West Sider, I've happily traipsed through the bowels of Brooklyn for my last few posts in pursuit of the most happening events in classical music, theater and opera. But sometimes, as L. Frank Baum and Judy remind us, there is truly no place like home. Last Wednesday and Thursday, I experienced two of the greatest recitals I have ever had the pleasure of hearing in my own backyard Halls -- that would be Mathew Polenzani at Alice Tully and Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie.

Both artists have graced the world's most prestigious opera stages in roles ranging from ingénues to English queens, from love-sick juveniles to Emperors of Rome. But in a recital, the singer is laid bare. Sets, costumes and lights are kept to a bare minimum; no orchestra or choreography or other players will help to heighten a character's inner life: there is only the singer and accompaniment. I've seen the most seasoned opera star fall flat simply because there is no support, nothing to lean on, no "character" to hide behind. But when a solo artist is confident, when the music soars from the soul of one person to the heart of the audience, there is simply no musical experience comparable -- as in the everyday world, intimacy is what feeds us, is what brings meaning to life.

From Evanston, Illinois, Polenzani (picture left) has performed the most challenging tenor roles in houses all over the world, but this was the first time I've seen him in recital. Walking on stage in an impeccable dark grey suit, , Polenzani and his pianist, the legendary Julius Drake took their places.

He opened with one of Beethoven's most famous songs, "Adelaide," and he had me at the first phrase, Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten, as his clarion, vital, sumptuous tenor gently caressed the gorgeous music. His voice easily filled the hall, echoing through the rafters, but seemed completely effortless, as if he were singing in my living room, his voice needing to fly, needing to be heard.

This was also the first time I've heard the British accompanist and chamber musician Drake (Julius Drake picture right) perform live (though he plays on probably half of my classical CD collection). He seemed to be playing a magic trick with the Steinway Grand -- turning it into a fortepiano, the kind of instrument Beethoven himself played. I don't know quite how he did it; it wasn't just a matter of playing softly or less sustained but somehow the entire tone of a modern piano was brought down to an 18th Century scale.

After the Beethoven, Polenzani segued into eight songs by Liszt with Drake now offering virtuosic Listzian pyrotechnics. I foolishly thought that I had heard the full bloom of Polenzani's sound with the Beethoven but I was wrong. His voice opened up even further. It was in this cycle I realized the depth of his emotional commitment as each song took on a completely different sense of character and emotional journey, from a man in the glow of youth appreciating the sound of the lark to a soul in despair, experiencing the death of all hope. Technically the transitions from his lowest notes to the highest were as smooth and as subtle as they were dazzling; when he gently held a pianissimo note and sweetly guided it down step-wards, I held my breath. The German language has never sounded as lovely.

I have read that Liszt's songs, works that I'm not as familiar with as I intend to be in the future, are the bridge to the art songs of the great Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. I think it's a tribute to an artist to make the listener need to explore more of the repertoire just experienced. 

After the intermission, Polenzani and Drake again enchanted in spirited songs by Satie and Ravel but the true revelation of the evening, the highlight of the recital composed of highlight after highlight was Polenzani's transcendent performance of Barber's monumental Hermit Songs. I have loved this song cycle for years but it wasn't until I heard him sing them, that I was finally convinced these songs, though originally premiered by Leontyne Price, truly belong to a tenor. 

What convinced me was the unmatched pathos in Polenzani's voice and the glorious colors he used. Recently I admit I've been partial to a darker tenor sound, the sound of a Jonas Kaufmann or Charles Castronovo. But hearing Polenzani, I remembered why I originally loved that pure, golden tenor sound. Plus, as strange as it seems, some Americans who can sing beautifully in German, French, Spanish and even Russian, cannot sing at all in their native language; for some reason, unknown to me, they insist on fake extended vowels and annoying guttural consonants. This is definitely not the case here. Polenzani sung beautifully in English, and I could feel the audience being drawn further into the recital experience by not having to read along with the translations.

Despite finding unexpected glories in all of the Hermit Songs, Polenzani brought a particular ardor and insight to the final piece in the cycle, "The Desire For Hermitage -- the brilliant climax to an unforgettable evening.  Bravo, tenore!

Great artists still have plenty to impart long after their peak years (just look at the Matisse cutouts so recently at MoMa). But there is nothing as exciting at seeing a world-class artist, maybe the best in the world, at the height of her career.

Such was the case with the incandescent Joyce DiDonato (picture left)

Oh yes. Instead of performing in the vast Stern Auditorium at Carnegie, which she sold out only a few weeks ago, on Thursday evening she was a "guest star" at the Brentano String Quartet concert in the 599-seat Zankel Hall. (All this while preparing La Donna del Lago at the Met.)

The Brentano Quartet dazzled the audience in the first half of the program with a scholarly Charpentier interpretation and a definitive Debussy String Quartet in G Minor.

After the break, DiDonato appeared in a stunning black-and-white outfit, the standing-room-only audience, which I have to assume was really there to hear her, embraced her with open arms.

She then introduced three songs that had been created by the Lullaby Project; created by the Weill Music Institute, the Project visits women show are dwelling in New York City hospitals, homeless shelters, and at Rikers Island and invites them to write personal lullabies for their children in collaboration with professional artists. The songs, "Hopes and Dreams for My Children (Elsa Negron with Matt Aronoff) "Dream Big" (Shaylor Canteen with Thomas Cabaniss) and "Peace" (Tamilles Fernandes with Deidre Rodman Struck) were mesmerizing. The conviction DiDonato brought to these heartfelt compositions was another tribute to her artistry. Not only can she sing convincingly in any language she choices, but her diction and sensitivity to vernacular lyrics (Will you play soccer just like your daddy does/Am I squishing you when I sleep at night?) lifted the compositions to that rarified world of art song.

Similar to the Polenzani recital, she saved the best for last: the premiere of American composer Jake Heggie's (picture right) monumental "Camille Claude: Into the Fire," a glorious if heart-wrenching new composition, with words by his longtime collaborator, Gene Scheer (in the picture below).

As Strauss's "Rosenkavalier" reveled in the waltzes and the schlag of Vienna, as Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" danced to the waltzes and "perpetual sunsets" of Scandinavia, "Into the Fire," suggested by sculptures of Claudel, is filled with sad, heartfelt and at times disturbing waltzes consumed with the passions and longing of rejected lovers, music that could have been heard on the streets and café's of Rodin's Paris.

The piece begins with a shimmering high A, at which point the string quartet seemed to be tuning up or metaphorically preparing for life as the first gorgeous waltz emerged, slowly at first, but then with more and more rhythmic, intense ferocity before it broke down again, just as DiDonato entered softly but gloriously with the opening line, "Last night I went to sleep completely naked, which seemed somehow to encompass Claudel's entire life.

The warmth and profundity of DiDonato's buttery lower register was gloriously explored in the second song, "La Valse" while her subtle soft notes were on display in "Shakuntala," the most rhythmic of pieces. 

The composition moved from strength to strength as Claudel sank deeper and deeper, musically and verbally, into despair, finally ending up with the Epilogue, 16 years into her confinement at the Montdevergues Asylum. The solo violin (the astonishing Mark Steinberg) seemed to portray a friend who came to visit, talking to Claudel. DiDonato sang, "Thank you for remembering me", and her pianissimo was radiant. The entire quartet picked up the valse triste as DiDonato ended with another almost unbearable, "Thank you for remembering me." And silence. There was nothing more to say, or hear.

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