Chamber Music Society opens Harris series with American and German vocal music

Wed Oct 25, 2017 at 10:38 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Leonard Bernstein's "Arias and Barcarolles" was performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Tuesday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Jack Mitchell
Leonard Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles” was performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Tuesday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Jack Mitchell

“I liked that last piece you played,” remarked President Eisenhower to Leonard Bernstein in 1960. “I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.”

From that memorable quote was born the song cycle Arias and Barcarolles, one of Bernstein’s last works, which also served as the title of Chamber Society of Lincoln Center’s first local concert of the season.

The mostly vocal program presented Tuesday evening at the Harris Theater, was divided into American and German halves, concluding with Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer, which are said to have inspired the Bernstein cycle.

Pianists Sebastian Knauer and Anne-Marie McDermott opened the concert with three excerpts from Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, the only instrumental item of the evening. Their performance of these four-hand duets–a set of old-fashioned dances with a modern twist– played up the modern side, emphasizing their undercurrent of menace more than their exterior charm.   

Susanna Philipps was scheduled to follow the Barber with a selection of Copland and Ives songs. But baritone Nathan Gunn stepped in for her to afford the imminently expectant soprano some repose.   

Gunn’s tawny tone brought out the nostalgia inherent in these songs. This was particularly the case in Copland’s “Long Time Ago,” which he made even more wistful with delicate dabs of falsetto. Only his closing song–Ives’s “The Circus Band”–could have used a wryer touch. McDermott accompanied him throughout. She was appropriately elegiac in most of the songs, but then cut loose thrillingly in “The Circus Band.”

Bernstein wrote most of his own texts for Arias and Barcarolles. These include a “Love Duet” in which the singers analyze the aesthetics of the melody that they are singing, a child’s song about the loss of a “wuddit,” and a straight-faced declaration that “Every time a child is born, for the space of that brief instant / The world is pure.” Depending on one’s tastes, this is either Bernstein at his most endearingly eclectic or his most corny and affected.

Gunn and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford did their best to steer away from the latter, by playing things straight rather than cutesy. Their impassive delivery of the “I love you’s” in the Prelude made its irony clear without overselling it.

Mumford’s interpretations were especially effective. She portrayed Little Smary’s loss of her wuddit and Mrs. Webb’s anxiety about moving to (gasp!) Chicago with an operatic flair that belied their silliness.  McDermott and Knauer rendered the myriad styles of the piece—twelve-tone, klezmer imitation, even scat-singing–with idiomatic aplomb.

The second half opened with a selection of Schumann songs, sung by Nicholas Phan. The tenor’s mastery of word-painting was fully on display. He made the word “Stern” (“star”) shine in “Mein schooner Stern!”, and brought tremendous urgency to “Flügel! Flügel! um zu fliegen.”

Knauer was equally sensitive in his accompaniments. In his hands, Schumann’s colorful modulations–such as on the words “Du bist die Ruh” in “Widmung”–were cloaked in that air of magic they need.  

Phillips joined the other three singers and both pianists for Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. Her solo, “Wohl schön bewandt,” ached with longing for the past. And she anchored the vocal quartet’s warm sound in the ensemble numbers.

Highlights of this concluding piece included “Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel,” which everyone involved timed with a perfect, roguish lilt; and the pair of “Nein, es ist nicht auszukommen” and “Schlosser auf, und mache Schlösser” in which outrage leapt from their mouths and hands. 

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