Harris Theater Hosts The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES Review: Bernstein, Brahms and More

Nathan Gunn Sandra Powers

On the surface, the two halves of this program by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) performed at the Harris Theater on October 24 as the first of CMS’s five-concert residency this season, couldn’t have appeared more dissimilar. The first half was a program of 20th Century American music including songs by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives leading up to the selection for which the concert was named: ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES, by Leonard Bernstein. The second half of the concert was devoted to selections by the 19th Century German Romantic composers Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Though the music of the first half included modern classical dissonances and urgent rhythms while the second half’s selections were lush, pastoral and romantic, there were parallels that made the pairing of these two halves appropriate. The texts that were sung in both halves dealt primarily with love and personal relationships and the two “anchor” pieces –Bernstein’s ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES and the second half’s LIEBESLIEDER WALZER were both love song cycles for vocalists accompanied by four hands on a single piano. The selections proved marvelous vehicles for some of leading classical performers of our time: soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Nathan Gunn and pianists Sebastian Knauer and Anne-Marie McDermott.

Songs by Copland and Ives were a surprise showcase for Nathan Gunn

As the program began, CMS co-artistic director Wu Han announced that Nathan Gunn, the world-renowned baritone who has sung in all the world’s most important opera houses, would be substituting for Susanna Phillips on the planned selections by Copland and Ives. Ms. Han explained that Ms. Phillips was expecting a child shortly and while she did not want to cancel, felt the need to conserve her energy and spend less time on stage. Han praised Phillips for her persistence and both artists for their generosity in making the hand-off.

The circumstances were a special treat for Gunn fans in the audience (of which this writer is one). Gunn displayed not only the power of his lower register in Ives’ “The Circus Band,” but also delicacy and softness in his upper register on “An Old Flame,” which along with “Two Little Flowers,” substituted for “Memories” and “Songs my mother taught me,” previously announced for Phillips. Though these songs were written mainly in the 1890s they are more similar to 20th Century music. Gunn also sensitively sang Copland’s setting of “Simple Gifts” and “Long Time Ago.” Beyond his vocal ability, Gunn possesses a friendly and unpretentious on-stage demeanor that is exceptionally appealing.

Gunn’s solo set was preceded by selections from Samuel Barber’s SOUVENIRS for Piano, Four Hands, OP. 28, performed by McDermott and Knauer on a Steinway piano. As much as the Ives songs resembled 20th Century music more than the romanticism of the 19th Century, in which they were composed, Barber’s piano pieces composed in 1951 showed Barber’s debt to romanticism and were highly melodic and accessible.

Bernstein’s ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES ended the first half of Chamber Music Society concert at the Harris Theater

Program notes recounted the story of the origin of this song cycle’s title. It’s said that President Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked to Bernstein after Bernstein played Mozart and Gershwin for him at the White House, that the President preferred those pieces over all those “arias and barcarolles.” Bernstein playfully chose that quote as the title of this composition completed in 1988, just two years before his death. It’s written for a mezzo-Soprano and baritone along with four hands on a single piano and is a loose story of a married couple and their child, set to texts written by Bernstein and his mother. The song cycle was a wonderful showcase for Mumford and Gunn along with pianists Knauer and McDermott. Bernstein’s music is dissonant – a far cry from his tuneful WEST SIDE STORY score - and more representative of the serious classical music that was his greater ambition.


Nineteenth Century Romanticism filled the concert’s second half

American tenor Nicholas Phan was the soloist for the opener of the second half, five songs for voice and piano, with Knauer on the Steinway. Phan’s impressive range – as powerful in his lower register as it is delicate in his upper register – was unusually expressive in these deeply romantic songs. The last, “Wings! Wings to Fly,” was a deeply moving meditation on life, love and death.

Nicholas Phan Tristan Cook

The program’s finale brought all six artists to the stage for the first time in the concert, performing Johannes Brahms’ LIEBESLIEDER WALTZER (love waltzes) for Vocal Quartet and Piano, Four Hands, Op. 52. This selection of 18 songs over 25 minutes featured the singers in various combinations of solos, duets and the full quartet. The texts, taken from Georg Friedrich Dauner’s translations and imitations of love poems from across Europe and Asia, are idealistically romantic, but also include two that bitterly denounce gossips and those who judge others’ love cynically – a mood Brahms set to music with an angry urgency. Brahms also gave a fast and furious pace to the song “Love is a dark well,” in which the singer bemoans the pain of an all-consuming love.

The program offered an intensely emotional meditation on love and relationships, sung by some of the music world’s leading classical artists. The opportunity to spend quality time with these four singers and two pianists was a special treat.

This was a program best for lovers of 19th and 20th Century classical music and fans of Nathan Gunn.

Harris Theater for Music and Dance continues its season with performances through June 10, 2018. For schedules and tickets visit the Harris Theater website. For more information on the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, visit the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center website.

About the Author:

John Olson is an arts carnivore who is particularly a love of music, theatre and film. He studied piano, trombone and string bass into his college years, performing in bands and orchestras in high school and college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While working as an advertising agency account manager, he began a second career as an arts journalist and is now principal of John Olson Communications, a marketing and public relations business serving arts and entertainment clients.

John Olson G. Thomas Ward
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