Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano in Review

Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano
Amy Yang, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 22, 2013

What an auspicious New York debut vocal recital, as two wonderful performers, mezzo soprano Misoon Ghim and pianist Amy Yang, presented songs from five stylistic periods, sung beautifully in five languages. I was most impressed by the high quality of the music they chose, and how these works allowed both performers to exhibit the many aspects of their fine technique and deep musicality.

And what better way to open a program than with the words “Music for a while/ Shall all your cares beguile,” the opening lines of Henry Purcell’s setting of John Dryden’s poem “Music for a while.” I was pleased that the performers chose an edition with a stylistically correct keyboard part, rather than one with the souped-up accompaniments so often used by singers who aren’t Baroque specialists. Ms. Ghim possesses a beautiful bright voice which is produced with great ease. (Darker vocal colors were to appear later in the concert.) Another Purcell work,  “Dido’s Lament,” followed. Most moving was her heartfelt singing of the words “remember me” which showcased her thrilling upper register. I did wonder why Ms. Ghim chose to ornament repeated lines during “Dido’s Lament,” while failing to decorate the da capo of “Music for a while.”

Next we heard four songs by Brahms. During these works Ms. Ghim produced many vocal colors to express the meaning of the words. Most memorable was her performance of “Die Mainacht” where we first heard her moving dark sound. Pianist Amy Yang, very much an accompanist during the Purcell, was given her first chance to shine during these songs. Her rapid finger work imitating the sound of spinning wheels during “Mädchenlied” and her stormy accompaniment during “Mein Liebe ist grun” gave us a foretaste of many pleasures to come.

The first half ended with a superb performance of Mozart’s Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” As the accompaniment of this work was originally scored for orchestra with obbligato piano, one could think of this piece as a concerto for voice and piano. It was therefore exciting to hear both of these fine musicians vie for our attention. That Ms. Ghim has been a success on the opera stage was vividly shown by her expert performance of the expressive opening recitative, the lyrical first section of the aria and then its thrilling dramatic conclusion. This was wonderful singing. Equally wonderful as both accompanist and second soloist  was pianist Amy Yang.

That the recital’s second half would maintain the high quality of the first half was made clear during the opening moments of the first of Mahler’s “Fünf Rückertlieder,” “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!” as Ms. Ghim spun out a most ravishing phrase. And at the climax of the intimate “Liebst du um Schönheit” she was very much the singing actress, as she lovingly caressed the words “o ja, mich liebe” (“oh yes, love me.”)  “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” allowed Ms. Ghim to show off her dark lower register and Ms. Yang to offer a sensitive accompaniment featuring a beautifully played left hand. Both performers shone during the very slow and quiet “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” But what sticks in my mind was Ms. Yang’s beautiful tone color and subtle phrasing, especially during the piano’s introduction, interludes and postlude. The last verse of “Um Mitternacht” brought the set to a goose-bump-producing- climax. For this listener, these Mahler songs were the highest point of a concert with many high points.

After a fine performance of Debussy’s “Fêtes galantes 1”, the program ended with “Cinco Cancione Negras” (“Five Black Songs”) by the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002.) Employing Spanish and West Indian rhythms and themes, these songs lightened the mood and showed us another side of Ms. Ghim’s artistry. She and Ms. Yang brought the concert to a jolly conclusion with a wild rendition of the last song, “Canto negro.”

Thanks to the Korean Music Foundation for bringing these wonderful artists before a very appreciative New York audience.

New York Philharmonic

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Christine Brewer, soprano; Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano; Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor; Eric Owens, bass-baritone; New York Choral Artists: Joseph Flummerfelt, director
Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY
June 26, 2010


Alan Gilbert

Alan Gilbert

Alan Gilbert’s first season as the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director ended as adventurously as it had begun, with a premiere commissioned for the occasion. Both were written by Magnus Lindberg, the Orchestra’s newly-installed Composer-in-Residence; the first was titled EXPO!, the second Al largo. The composer provides the best description of his own music: “Only the extreme is interesting. Striving for a balanced totality is now an impossibility….” In Al largo—(meaning “offshore”)—a big orchestra with a huge percussion section produces a great, joyful noise with many brass fanfares and a multitude of instrumental colors, but without any discernible form or structure.

The main work on the program was well suited to demonstrate Gilbert’s ambitious, wide-ranging plans for his orchestra, and to celebrate the successful close of his first season: Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Op. 123, one of the greatest, most formidable works in the literature.

The Missa has a singular history. Begun in 1819, it was intended, in Beethoven’s words, “to contribute to the glorification of the day” when his friend and patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, was invested as Archbishop of Olmütz. However, the Missa was far from ready to be performed at the ceremony a year later; indeed, Beethoven wrestled with it longer than with any other composition. Not until 1823 did he consider it finished, having in the meantime written his last three piano sonatas, and worked on the “Diabelli” Variations and the Ninth Symphony.

This unusually long period of gestation and contemplation could not but affect the nature of the work. Alan Gilbert thinks that what makes it so difficult to understand and perform is, at least in part, the dichotomy between its sacred and secular elements. But one might also say that it is the music itself that baffles and overwhelms both listeners and performers. It shows Beethoven at his emotionally most profound, his spiritually most sublime, and his intellectually and technically most intractable. Everything is driven to excess: the extreme changes of mood and expression; the constant shifts of meter, tempo, and dynamics; the abrupt swings from lyricism to drama, and from humble pleading to heaven-storming ecstasy. If Beethoven had any weaknesses, they lay in his vocal writing and his counterpoint, and the Missa naturally abounds in both. As in the Ninth Symphony, chorus and soloists are driven into the stratosphere for unsustainably long stretches; the fugues – and there are many – are so complex that they seem to get tangled up like coils of barbed wire. At times, even Gilbert’s usually unfailing sense of balance and textural clarity was defeated by the dense, overloaded score.  No wonder the work is heard so rarely.

The Philharmonic’s performance must have been one of the best in recent memory. Orchestra and chorus, meticulously prepared, were precise, secure, and emotionally involved; among the vocal soloists, the soprano was outstanding; the rest were good, though not well matched: the bass and alto were too subdued, the tenor was too heroic. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow played his big solo in the Benedictus brilliantly, but his tone was too unremittingly intense.

The concert’s real hero was Alan Gilbert. His beat, as always, was clear and decisive; his transitions and tempo changes were admirably smooth and organic; his mastery of this immensely complex score, from the smallest detail to its monumental over-all structure, was prodigious; he led his enormous forces with the natural authority born of a thorough knowledge and deeply felt love of the music.

SoNoRo Festival Bucharest

Ensemble Raro:Diana Ketler, piano;
Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin;
Razvan Popovici, viola;
Bernhard Naoki Heidenborg, cello;
Roxana Constantinescu, guest mezzo-soprano
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
February 16, 2010

Formed in 2004, Ensemble Raro (named after Master Raro, the wise old arbiter of Schumann’s imaginary Davidsbündler) must be one of the best, most versatile young groups before the public. Resident Ensemble of the SoNoRo Festival, founded in 2006 by violist Popovici, the group appears in concert halls world-wide; this was its New York debut. SoNoRo has released two recordings, and fosters living composers through performances, and young musicians through scholarships.

The players of Ensemble Raro, who also pursue individual, solo, chamber music and teaching careers, are splendid technically, musically and communicatively, making this a true collaboration of equals. Although they were born and trained in different countries, their rapport is so close that they seem to share and anticipate one another’s whims and wishes; the strings’ tone, which is warm and expressive, blends together without losing its variety or individual timbre, and their intonation is impeccable, as they take over lines imperceptibly on the same note. Totally immersed in the music, they never call attention to themselves by sound or gesture. The only flaw, endemic to this combination, is the balance, which favors the (wide-open) piano, despite pianist Ketler’s obvious sensitivity.

Their program featured two novelties by Enescu and Peteris Vasks. Enescu’s Sept chansons de Clément Marot combines Romanian folk melodies with medieval modes and elegant French sophistication. Mezzo-soprano Constantinescu and pianist Ketler brought out the songs’ different character and moods beautifully. Born in 1946, Peteris Vasks gained recognition in the 1990s and has received several European honors and prizes. His Piano Quartet (2000-2001) is extremely difficult and almost unremittingly intense. The strings often alternate with the piano in textures featuring solos, duets, chordal unisons, long glissandi, double stops, and drones. Some of its six movements flow together, some are obsessively repetitive, and all have powerful climaxes (Vasks calls one “a black hole”). The Raro Ensemble introduced it in Germany and England; in this New York premiere, their performance was committed and authoritative.

The players’ youthful romanticism showed to fine advantage in a wonderfully spontaneous, exuberant, expressive but unsentimental performance of Schumann’s Piano Quartet. But the playing of the slow movement of Brahms’ C Minor Piano Quartet as an encore was even more impressive for its deeply felt inwardness.

Proteus Ensemble and Hai-Ting Chinn, mezzo-soprano

Proteus Ensemble and Hai-Ting Chinn, mezzo-soprano
Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY
October 25, 2009

This was my first visit to Le Poisson Rouge, a multimedia art cabaret which has become the hip and trendy place to hear classical music in New York. The audience sat at tables and could eat and drink before, during and after the performance. Fortunately one heard very little table noise, and the wait-staff was quite discrete. I might add that the mac and cheese was delicious.

Soon after the piped-in-classical-background-music stopped, the five members of the Proteus Ensemble entered and flutist Jennifer Grim played “Syrinx,” Debussy’s work for solo flute. This segued into a performance of pianist James Johnston’s fine arrangement of Debussy’s “Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune.” Both pieces were beautifully done, and while pride of place goes to the flutist in both of these works, I was very impressed by the perfect intonation and beautiful balance one heard in the octave doublings played by Ms. Grim, clarinetist Gilad Harel, violinist Yuko Naito, and cellist Alberto Parrini. But, as we were not given programs, no one in the audience was informed as to what was being played or by whom.

Next, appearing hip and trendy in high boots and a mini-dress, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn performed Poulenc’s song cycle “La courte paille.” These seven songs, settings of nonsense verses for children, were initially written for the soprano Denise Duval to sing to her son. For me, a little French whimsy goes a long way. But the audience delighted in Ms. Chinn expertly poised performance, for which James Johnston provided the sensitive accompaniment. Computer keystrokes by Ms. Chinn activated text translations which were projected on a screen behind the players.

Alban Berg’s “Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano” followed. Here one experienced some of this evening most memorable playing. The almost inaudible pianissimo phrases spun out by Mr. Harel were ravishingly beautiful, perfectly shaped and controlled.

Then came the evening’s major work, Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.” The Proteus Ensemble’s makeup exactly matches the instrumentation of this 1912 expressionistic work. They performed the complex score masterfully, playing with such ease and assurance that it belied the fact that this was atonal Schoenberg, not Mozart. The same could be said for Ms. Chinn’s performance of the Sprechstimme (speech-voice) narration. There are many ways to perform “Pierrot’s” Sprechstimme, some more sung, some more spoken. Ms. Chinn “more sung” rendition was quite convincing.

Immediately after the performers left the stage, the piped-in-classical-background-music began again.