Lieder festival wraps with inspired evening of myth and fantasy

Sun Sep 10, 2017 at 1:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Sarah Shafer performed at the Collaborative Works Festival Saturday night at Gottlieb Hall. Photo: Elliot Mandel
Sarah Shafer performed at the Collaborative Works Festival Saturday night at Gottlieb Hall. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Fantasy, folk myth and spooky spirits provided fertile ground for an inspired conclusion to the Collaborative Works Festival Saturday night at the Merit School’s Gottlieb Hall.

Continuing this year’s festival theme of Myths and Legends, the closing program, “Once Upon a Time,” focused on the history of the ballad. The lineup reprised the same trio of singers and two pianists who opened the festival Wednesday night. The intermission-less program was divided into four thoughtfully compiled sets with Nicholas Phan’s informal introductions concisely placing the context.

The versatile tenor–Phan is also cofounder and artistic director of the festival, in addition to writing the program notes–is one of those rare singers who never seems to have an off night. His idiomatic, richly communicative singing was as technically assured throughout the evening as it was emotionally dramatic.

In Brahms’ “Es war ein Markgraf uberm Rhein,” the tenor switched fluently between a dark stentorian voice for the Markgraf and a fragile, delicate tone for the young girl. Likewise, with warm confiding tone, Phan conveyed the storytelling essence of Mahler’s ironic “Rheinlegendchen.” Phan was at his finest in the ghostly third set, imbuing Mendelssohn’s witchy “Hexenlied” with vehemence and bringing an operatic intensity to the violent tale of a homicidal dwarf  in Schubert’s “Der Zwerg.”

Phan’s colleagues were no less impressive Saturday night. Sarah Shafer is a promising young singer, possessing an ample, gleaming soprano and all-American-girl looks in her charming stage presence.

She showed sure dramatic instincts in Duparc’s  “Au pays ou se faut la guerre,” rising from rapt intimacy to an impassioned outburst in the final stanza. Shafer floated a lovely and atmospheric rendering of Chausson’s “Dans le foret du charme et de l’enchantement,” conveying the gentle forest mystery.  She brought a touching wistful quality to the lullaby “What the Grey-Winged Fairy Said” from Jake Heggie’s fairy-tale cycle, Songs of the Moon. She also stayed nicely in melancholy witch character, as she segued from a duetted version of Robert Schumann’s “Waldgesprach” with Douglas Williams into Clara Schumann’s haunting “Lorelei.”

Douglas Williams. Photo: Elliot Mandel
Douglas Williams. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Williams displayed a heroic bass-baritone and brought an imposing presence to his selections. He put across a powerfully dramatic account of Schumann’s “Belsazar,” winnowing down to a strikingly hushed coda. He also lightened his voice and style artfully in two comic, wryly witty excerpts from Heggie’s Songs of the Moon, set to Vachel Lindsay texts.

One of the most welcome elements of the festival is the clear belief that the most fully realized lieder singing comes from an equal partnership between singer and pianist. Rather than the discreetly distanced support one too often experiences with vocal recitals, pianists Myra Huang and Shannon McGinnis were manifest partners with the singers throughout. Their keyboard playing was as boldly projected, characterful and delicately nuanced as the singing of the vocalists.

Kudos again to Nicholas Phan and colleagues for plugging a gap on the local music scene and doing it so consistently well. Long may the Collaborative Works Festival continue.

Posted in Performances

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