The afternoon of January 13 presented a dilemma for fans of art songs. Two such recitals took place in Dallas at about the same time, starting an hour apart. One featured an internationally lauded tenor while the other presented outstanding locally based singers. Being an avid fan of art songs, your intrepid music critic attended both of them: leaving a few songs before the first one ended and racing to the other venue, arriving (a bit muddled) in the middle of the first half. The music on both programs was intriguing, with lots of songs by 20th and 21st century composers. Hooray!
Concert attendance as an Olympic event?
Last year, The Dallas Opera launched the Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series. Their daughter, Sarah Titus (who is a musician herself), generously presented the grant to fund the series as a tribute to her parents. Here is the profile we ran at the time.
The first of Sunday’s concert was the second in this series and presented tenor Matthew Polenzani, an international sensation who sings in all of the major opera houses around the world, presented at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium. Voces Intimae, a local group that presents the best singers in the area, presented the second concert at Zion Lutheran Church on Lovers Lane. This concert featured two singers associated with the Fort Worth Opera’s apprentice program: soprano Kristen Lassiter and mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright.
One very noticeable similarity between the two concerts was the high level of playing by the collaborative pianists: Russian-born and locally based Anastasia Markina for the Voces program and the much lauded London-based Julius Drake for the Titus concert. Both have outstanding solo and chamber music careers.
There was a time, not too long ago, that pianists for concerts like these were “accompanists,” which was vaguely considered to be something a step down from “pianist.” It implied that the pianist worked for the soloist instead of with them. All that changed, mostly due to the efforts of the first “collaborative” pianist to come to national attention: Gerald Moore (1899–1987). Now, it is a highly respected specialty and many pianists make it their first choice of career paths.
Of course, pianists or composers that boast major careers as a soloist would often collaborate with other soloists, such as Alessio Bax recent tour with violinist Joshua Bell or pianist/composer Benjamin Britten’s historical recordings of sonatas with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Polanzani gave a superb recital. His versatile tenor ranged from heroic to a barely audible floated pianissimo. Best yet, his heroic singing was kept on the scale of a recital and not blasted on an operatic stage level. His entire performance was elegant, intelligent and beautifully sung.
He opened with Beethoven’s “Adelaide,” Op. 46 and then really mixed things up, ending with Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs” Op. 29. Along the way, he sang some rarities: Franz Liszt’s “Five Popular Greek Melodies,” and two song cycles by Maurice Ravel. Julius Drake was amazing at the piano.
Not so far away from SMU, we heard two singers from the Fort Worth Opera’s apprentice studio: soprano Kristen Lassiter and mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright. In much the same manner and the Titus event, they started out with one of the masterpieces of the art song repertoire: Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und leben” (“A Woman’s Life and Love”). Since I missed this in my mad dash from concert to concert, I asked those I trust and was told unequivocally that Mercado-Wright gave it a warm and touching rendition. I regret missing it as the song is a favorite. I was able to hear the rest of the program—all works by living composers.
Lassiter gave a marvelous rendition of John Corigliano’s rendition of poems by Bob Dylan set in a collection called Mr. Tambouine Man. Divorced from Dylan’s questionable singing abilities, you can better grasp the profound nature of the poems. Lassiter’s clear diction made the printed words in the program superfluous.
Mercado-Wright gave an intriguing performance of two of Lembit Beecher’s “Three Immigrant Songs.” He is a young composer who focuses on vocal writing and dramatic works for groups such as Cantori New York, Gotham Chamber Opera and Opera Philadelphia to name a few. These songs were marvelous, especially in Mercado-Wright’s able hands, making the audience wanting to hear more by the composer.
We constantly hear complaints abut the death of the song recital. Not in Dallas. We had two concerts of art songs on the same day at the same time. Both were very different but equally welcome. One brought in an international star that we might never get to hear otherwise. The other let us hear two young singers on their way to Polenzani’s status, hopefully.
Let’s end with some kudos. One goes to Karen Moyer, who resurrected Voces Intimae from near-death status. Secondly, brava to Sarah Titus for her love of the art song and her gift that makes it possible to bring artists such as Polenzani to Dallas.