Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artist Series presents Melissa Wimbish
Melissa Wimbish, soprano
Ta-Wei Tsai, piano
Jessica Meyer, viola
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 10, 2016
It has become politically correct to bash Columbus and his day; he didn’t even “discover America” anyway. Nevertheless, it seemed an appropriate choice for an all-American art song recital, all the music of which was by contemporary living composers. This marks the New York solo recital debut of Melissa Wimbish, the NATS 2014 competition winner. It was an ambitious program, and one that clearly showed her virtues, as well as a few minor flaws. Who doesn’t have flaws?
When she took the stage, I thought she bore a striking resemblance to Bernadette Peters. Then when she began singing, I thought: well, here is the “love-child” of Peters and Dawn Upshaw. Ms. Wimbish is a very stylish woman, svelte, with masses of curly red hair; she changed outfits three times, as befit the different repertoires. Her program also contained generous program notes (most of them by her) and the complete printed texts of everything performed. This is necessary, despite her exemplary diction, in a program where you have to sing words such as: transactional, chromosomes, flagella, and embezzled. She also gave concise spoken introductions from the stage prior to each group, just enough to enhance our appreciation of her feelings about the songs.
Ms. Wimbish is clearly very thoughtful about this repertoire, and she is a charming actor. The aforementioned diction was truly excellent—however, as the evening progressed, the diction flagged a little, revealing more vocal sumptuousness, which was welcome. In fact, my only slight reservation about the recital was the smallness of her softer singing, which often was covered by her otherwise expert collaborative pianist, Mr. Tsai, even though the piano lid was on the short-stick. He needs to support the voice he’s with, not the “theoretical” one we all carry around in our heads. I also disagree with his bowing from behind the piano bench, which he did every time until the final bows. When you’re as good as Mr. Tsai is, and you’ve worked that hard, equality is the way to go.
You know your voice is small when a single viola can drown you out. Ms. Wimbish projected the best she could, but her real “glamour” range was attained only when she went to high notes and above a mezzo-forte dynamic. Within her voice type, she displayed myriads of colors beautifully. Composers love voices like these that are pure and accurate, with flawless intonation, attached to inquisitive minds and hearts.
She began with the “feminist version” of Eve, in excerpts from Jake Heggie’s Eve-Song (poetry by Philip Littell). Mr. Heggie has attained major prominence as a vocal composer because he writes “for” rather than “against” the voice, in unabashedly neo-Romantic style, spiced with complex modern chords. Ms. Wimbish revealed the sassy update of this character perfectly; she is the master of the discreet “uh” following a consonant that prevents it from disappearing. I was immediately captured by her pronunciation of “Eeev[uh]” which gave so much emphasis and clarity. She bit into an actual apple during the performance, and it can not have been easy to sing around that lump of fruit while maintaining her diction, her sound, and gradually swallowing it!
This was followed by the Three Dickinson Songs by André Previn, more lushly tonal music, composed for Renée Fleming. It would be unfair to compare Ms. Wimbish directly to her role model, but one did long for more sensuous weight, particularly in the lower-middle ranges of the voice, which then would have informed the exposed final high notes with which the composer challenges his interpreters.
A world-premiere ensued; how many times do you encounter that at an art song recital? The composer Jessica Meyer was also the violist in her own work: Space, In Chains, a group of three songs to anguished poetry by Laura Kasischke, for viola and voice only (no piano). Ms. Meyer uses both extended and traditional techniques in her music, drawing on her years of experience as a professional violist. The most haunting of these, for me, was her gentle drumming on her instrument in the “Rain” song.
After intermission, six songs by the genial Tom Cipullo (another lyrical neo-Romantic composer) were rendered with sensitivity. There was less of the whimsy and humor I associate with his work (though some peeked through in “Fugitive”); these were more meditative and passionate. The poet of the sixth song, Something About Autumn, Robert Cole, was present along with Mr. Cipullo to acknowledge the applause. This was also the most effective song of the set, with a final held high note sung stunningly by Ms. Wimbish.
Ms. Wimbish closed the recital with a performance of the long scene for soprano and piano called At the Statue of Venus, by Jake Heggie. In it, a woman of unspecified age (though she does say “I’m too old for this”) is waiting in an art museum for a blind date with a man her friends have set up for her. During this wait, she agonizes over her choice of outfit (the word “slacks” received more inflections than I could have imagined); feels insecure about the whole idea; compares herself unfavorably to other female artists’ muses; then comforts herself with memories of how loved and protected she felt as a child. Finally, the man arrives (her obliging pianist supplied the final word: Rose, her name). The scene is not opera, but it certainly is operatic. Is it overwrought? Not for me to say—people adore Mr. Heggie’s music. It is grateful to sing, and after all, his operas: Dead Man Walking, and Moby Dick, notably, are performed worldwide. In the scene, Ms. Wimbish really opened her voice, producing the best singing of the night. The words became unclear but the sonority was worth waiting for. The audience leapt to its feet.
I salute this enterprising and versatile young artist, and hope she will return often with even more intriguing program ideas. If she hasn’t already, may I suggest she do an omnibus survey of Sondheim? She seems ideally suited for it.