at Rosary College, February 27


at Ascension Church, February 26

The art of opera and the art of the song recital are as different as the art of the muralist and of the miniaturist. The opera singer–well, the star anyway–has the entire evening to create a character, aided by costumes, makeup, wigs, sets, and props. She has the conductor and colleagues for support, and the size of the hall, the orchestra, and the demands of the role to cover or excuse any deficiencies of tone. She has one picture to paint, and the leisure to get it just right. The recitalist, in contrast, stands alone before the audience with only a piano to lean upon. Wearing her own personal hair and exposing her taste in evening gowns and accessories, she must create jewellike musical portraits, each in a matter of a minute or so–as many as two dozen in an hour of singing. Each must be different from the one before it and the one after it, yet each must fit into the whole. This is an art form in which the small but expressive voice can shine; mere Valkyrielike power, which can ease a singer past any number of objections in an opera, is just not very interesting in a recital. Good diction is imperative to get the brief messages across, and there’s nothing worse than a voice that wobbles and scoops in such an intimate setting.

Naturally, the only people who can sell tickets to a song recital are opera stars. It is not a particularly popular form in today’s musical world, but patrons will come to hear a famous voice in a cozier venue than the typical opera house. This can be mutually beneficial: the star gets a chance to grow artistically and sing unfamiliar literature, and the audience gets its own musical horizons broadened while indulging in a bit of diva worship. Unfortunately, the artistic quality is not always as high as one might hope. Some singers do recitals strictly for the bucks: one world-renowned artist–who, in his defense, really had no interest in singing anything but opera–told me that he’d put together “the easiest possible recital” because there was a call for it and it made for a remunerative gig. And some fans would just as soon sit back and listen to their favorite arias with piano accompaniment.

Marilyn Horne is an opera star, one of the very few mezzo-sopranos to achieve major diva status. Back in the 50s she was the offscreen voice of Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones; since then she’s spearheaded the Rossini revival around the world. In the 70s she and soprano Joan Sutherland set vocal fires in operas like Semiramide; last year she sang a notable Dame Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff at the Met and created a role in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. The voice is a freak of nature in the best sense of the term, a phenomenon, with a huge range, dark color, and amazing flexibility. It benefits from having a strong intelligence behind it.

Horne is that rare thing, an opera star who likes to give recitals–so much so that she recently created the Marilyn Horne Foundation, which will subsidize recital performances by young artists and work with booking agents to put more vocal programs on the menu. This will help both the singers–by giving them paying work and helping them to develop their art–and the audiences, who will presumably learn to enjoy recitals when they have the opportunity to attend them more frequently. On Sunday afternoon, putting her mouth where her money is, Horne offered an extremely eclectic–possibly too eclectic–selection of songs at Rosary College.

The first evidence of her artistry came in the choices she made and the order in which they appeared on the program; she’s still generous with her voice, but she just turned 60 and is husbanding her resources a bit. An opening song by Henry Purcell and two by Thomas Arne completed her warm-up and put her in shape for Mahler’s Ruckertlieder, the heaviest portion of the program. Particularly in the last two songs of that group, “Um Mitternacht” and “Ich bin der Welt abbanden gekommen,” Horne built a world in miniature, spinning a mood that was breathtaking. That led to five coloratura-laden bonbons by Rossini, the sort of thing that challenges most singers but that Horne tosses off. After the intermission, she returned with a relatively easy selection of Copland’s Old American Songs and various American popular tunes–easy to do because they don’t make the vocal or interpretive demands of, say, Mahler.

Other evidence of Horne’s artistry came in her diction, which was superb in four languages: English, German, Italian, and French. She is living proof that one need not sacrifice tone quality in order to spit out the words. She also demonstrated that one can sell a song without a lot of extraneous movement; for most of the program her right hand was clamped firmly to the piano lid.

A recital ought to have some continuity of theme; the theme of this one seemed to be “Things I Like to Sing,” which may not be sufficient for some tastes. The least successful portion artistically, the final group of five popular songs, was also the greatest crowd pleaser. Horne displayed distinct torch-singer possibilities in “Bewitched” and “In the Still of the Night” and carried off the hopelessly un-PC lyrics to “The Man I Love” with aplomb. But her version of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” had all the stigmata of the unfortunate opera-singer crossover, with too much scooping and an intrusive vibrato. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” proved too fragile for her vocal weight. Kathleen Battle might be able to pull this song off vocally, however unlikely the sentiments would appear coming from her; but it demands a more ethereal tone than Horne has at her command.

Horne’s vocal fabric is somewhat worn–some pitches were slightly under, and she wisely skipped a couple of high notes in the Old American Songs–but she still sounds better than most of her juniors, and she is still capable of perfection: her seemingly effortless rendition of Rossini’s dazzling “Canzonetta spagnuola,” with its fast runs, qualified. She was clearly enjoying herself, particularly in the second half of the program. And she remains outstandingly gracious, giving full credit to her longtime collaborator, pianist Martin Katz.

Whoever puts together the programs for these annual Rosary College benefit recitals (stars in previous years have included Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, and Samuel Ramey) should consider advising patrons to hold their applause until the end of each group. It would have been pleasant to hear Horne’s Mahler without mood-shattering clapping at the conclusion–and sometimes even before the conclusion–of every song.

Though some people are still shocked that Stokowski took it upon himself to rewrite Bach organ pieces for orchestra, transcription has a long and honorable history: soloists have been quietly swapping scores for centuries. It’s not unusual for musicians in search of new challenges, not to mention nifty new tunes, to ransack the literature written for other instruments–trumpeters steal from the soprano repertory, flutists borrow from violinists, and artists of the synthesizer grab whatever appeals. But the guitar may well be the solo transcription champ. Andres Segovia was the king of the transcribers, borrowing freely from the works of Bach and others. Julian Bream and John Williams (the guitarist, not the movie-music composer) have also created arrangements for guitar, adapting works by Bach, Handel, Marcello, and the guitaristic piano music of Albeniz.

The guitar is an instrument with an ancient lineage–some trace it to the Hittites, and from there to ancient Greece and Rome (did Nero play an ur-guitar?). Its shape, size, and number of strings have all varied over the centuries, but it attained its present configuration in Spain toward the end of the 16th century. A favorite there but generally considered an instrument fit only for accompaniment, the guitar was noted for its solo possibilities only in the 19th century, when composers like Fernando Sor (1778-1839) began to write for it.

While there is an eminently worthy repertoire of classical guitar music, much of it dating from the nationalist revivals of the late 19th century, that repertoire is relatively small. To achieve a balanced program most guitarists rely on transcriptions leavened with the occasional contemporary piece. That was the approach chosen by Paul Henry last weekend at Ascension Church, with mostly satisfactory results.

It’s an unfortunate truth that most contemporary music falls into one of two camps: banal and/or commercial (see: Lloyd Webber, Andrew) or egregiously cacophonous. Henry spared his listeners the latter (though assaults against the ear by the guitar are harder to come by than those written for, say, the violin). But he opened his program with two examples of the former, both by Andrew York. “Childhood’s Dream” is glossy and glib and tainted with more than a smidgen of new age, while “Sunburst” is technically challenging, with plenty of fast fingerwork, but goes nowhere.

The evening’s other contemporary work was Brad Richter’s three-movement The Harvest, receiving its world premiere. The work’s spirited, Granados-flavored opening, called “Dance of the Harvest Fires,” is so strong it could stand alone. This piece actually demands a second hearing–most unusual for new music. The rest of the program offered the obligatory Bach transcription, three short subjects by Albeniz, and some traditional South American music. Henry played skillfully and with great feeling, but he was plagued by a recalcitrant string that declined to keep to pitch in a couple of selections. He also seemed to lose concentration briefly after the intermission, when he fumbled bits of Albeniz’s familiar “Asturius” (better known as “the thing WFMT plays when it has technical difficulties”). But he went on to offer superb renditions of the composer’s “Mallorca” and “Sevilla.”

Ascension Church in Oak Park is an acoustically outstanding venue for this unobtrusive art: Henry could be heard clearly at the back of the crowded sanctuary without amplification.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Cohen.