Phillips and Owens provide sterling artistry in wide-ranging Schubert program

Mon May 12, 2014 at 11:25 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Susanna Phillips performed Schubert lieder Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.
Susanna Phillips performed Schubert lieder Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

On Sunday afternoon Symphony Center Presents revived the tradition of the Schubertiad, as Susanna Phillips and Eric Owens sang a selection of Schubert’s lieder, accompanied by Myra Huang at the piano.

The concert was bookended by two lieder from the last year of Schubert’s life, each of which call for an additional accompanying instrument: Chicago Symphony Orchestra acting principal French horn Daniel Gingrich joined Owens and Huang in opening the concert with a rendition of Auf dem Strom; and CSO assistant principal clarinet John Bruce Yeh closed the concert alongside Phillips and Huang with Schubert’s final song, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.

In the latter song, the clarinet represents the echo of the shepherd’s voice as he sings to his beloved from atop a cliff. Yeh and Phillips played off each other beautifully at these moments, phrasing their parts with exquisite charm.

The rest of the program offered a mix of popular favorites (An die Musik, Gretchen am Spinnrade) and relative rarities (Die Männer sind méchant and Fahrt zum Hades). Both singers performed well throughout the concert, with lavish attention to the dramatic opportunities afforded by the songs.

Eric Owens
Eric Owens

The program choices, however, put Owens at a slight disadvantage. His high notes sounded strained in his opening song. And though his final three songs in the first half (Prometheus, Fahrt zum Hades, and Gruppe aus dem Tartarus) allowed him to display the dark colors of his voice, the similarity of these songs’ subject matter and mood denied him an opportunity to demonstrate interpretive versatility.

Owens fared better after the intermission, singing with tenderness in Ganymed and plumbing the depths of his character’s solitude in Der Wanderer.

Susanna Phillips, conversely, exhibited tremendous artistic range throughout the concert, even filling the many piano interludes with stage business to enhance her characterizations. Whereas Owens’ singing was more naturalistic, Phillips focused on highlighting particular words with carefully calibrated vocal effects, which nonetheless always remained tasteful and musical. Her comic turn in Die Männer sind méchant elicited chuckles from the audience. The soprano’s tautly paced Gretchen powerfully charted the character’s course from her empty, shattered present to her overwrought past. In Phillips’ performance Viola emerged as a richly detailed drama in miniature.

In Schubert’s songs, the piano has to play as many roles as the singers, from the waves of the Danube river to the flight of Ganymede as he is carried aloft by an eagle.

Apart from an oddly overemphatic right-hand figure depicting Gretchen’s spinning wheel, Huang treated Schubert’s keyboard painting with great sensitivity to color, bringing out her lines at key moments but never overshadowing the singers.

John Y. Lawrence is a PhD candidate in music history and theory at the University of Chicago. He grew up in New York City, where he studied composition with Margarita Zelenaia. He has earned a bachelor’s degree in music and English from Yale University and a master’s degree in musicology from King’s College London.

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