Not just any bootcamp: Renée Fleming’s SongStudio returns to Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Various composers, SongStudio 2020: Singers and pianists,.Carnegie Hall, New York, 16-18.1.2020. (RP)

Renée Fleming and SongStudio participants at Zankel Hall © Jennifer Taylor

Natalie Buickians (soprano) / Sandy Lin (piano)
Meghan Kasanders (soprano) / Cameron Richardson-Eames (piano)
Anneliese Klenetsky (soprano) / Anna Smigelskaya (piano)
Kady Evanyshyn (soprano) / Nara Avetisyan (piano)
Xenia Puskarz Thomas (mezzo-soprano) / Richard Fu (piano)
Eric Carey (tenor) / Tomomi Sato (piano)
Randy Ho (tenor) / Celeste Marie Johnson (piano)
Dominik Belavy (baritone) / John Robertson (piano)
Johnathan McCullough (baritone) / Michael Sikich (piano)
Laureano Quant (baritone) / Toni Ming Geiger (piano)

It might as well be called Field of Dreams, for that is what SongStudio is for young singers and collaborative pianists, although Renée Fleming, who leads the program, strips away the romance and likens it to bootcamp. Now in its second year, SongStudio is a week-long, total immersion experience for ten pairs of artists to hone their skills under the tutelage of masters in the art of song, as well as to explore innovative approaches to both the classical and contemporary repertoires.

SongStudio 2020 included master classes by mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, pianist Hartmut Höll and Fleming, and a session with soprano Julia Bullock entitled ‘Recitals Without Limits’. Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane served as composer in residence. His album Book of Travelers links America’s abstract political reality to the human lives that it has shaped and was hailed by Rolling Stone as ‘a stunning portrait of a singular moment in America’. I was fortunate to be able to attend the three master classes and the concluding recital, all of which were open to the public.

The singers ranged in age from 23 to 29, with the pianists tending to be a bit older. Some of the vocalists are undergraduate students, while others have begun to establish professional careers. The songs that the artists brought to the master classes fit mostly within the parameters of the standard song repertoire of today. The works they chose for the recital, however, not only provided insights into how they wish to present themselves as artists, but also exposed the breadth of the repertoire encompassed in a musical genre that many declare passé.

Garanča stated in her opening remarks that this was the first time she had been asked to conduct a master class and mused whether it was a mark of experience, or whether she was just getting old. Garanča’s goal was to help the singers find their true sound: a phrase, be it a measure or two, in which the voice was its most natural, beautiful and expressive. Her ability to pinpoint and suggest remedies for technical glitches in the singers’ vocal production was amazing and generally yielded immediate results, which were greeted with wonder and applause by the audience.

Höll’s session displayed his holistic approach to song and was fascinating. He probed whether the singers were presenting themselves to an audience or seeking to draw listeners into their personal spheres. More often than not, he urged singer and pianist to consider the latter. One word, ‘Sehnsucht’, which means longing in German but which Höll suggested was more akin to an addiction or even a state of desperation, became the porthole though which he prompted baritone Dominik Belavy to approach ‘Die Taubenpost’ from Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang and soprano Meghan Kasanders to express the essence of Joseph Marx’s lush, chromatic ‘Nocturne’.

Fleming devoted almost equal attention to singer and pianist. She urged pianist Anna Smigelskaya to replicate the sound of a waterfall in ‘Wie erkenn’ ich mein Treulieb’ from Richard Strauss’s Drei Lieder der Ophelia; and she suggested that Michael Sikich channel some of Leonard Bernstein’s spirit in the lengthy introduction to an excerpt from the composer’s Songfest, ‘To what you said’. To depict Ophelia’s fragile state of mind in the Strauss song, Fleming advised Anneliese Klenetsky that straight tone was a soprano’s friend in depicting madness, words you might not expect to hear from a superstar soprano renowned for her luscious, creamy voice.

Four singers were especially intriguing. At the younger end of the age spectrum, mezzo-soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas and tenor Randy Ho, both 23, were compelling for their repertoire choices and the ability to digest and internalize the input they received. The rich beauty of Thomas’s voice was not always revealed in the Mahler songs that she favored, but it was quite stunning when it did emerge. For the closing recital, Thomas sang a cradle song by Polish composer Stanisław Niewiadomski, ‘Kołysanka’; it was the epitome of simple, lovely and winning.

The intensity and burnished tone that Ho brought to Strauss’s ‘Allerseelen’ was there from the start, but under Höll’s benevolent prodding the song became an anguished cry of remorse over the death of a loved one. For Fleming’s masterclass, Ho sang Gerald Finzi’s setting of the Thomas Hardy poem ’In years defaced’. For curiosity alone Ho deserves credit, but he also happened upon one of the loveliest phrases imaginable, a lilting, wistful melody that comes at the end of the song. Fleming spent extra time working with Ho on the text of the elegiac poem; English is the American-born tenor’s third language.

At 25, baritone Laureano Quant makes a statement physically and vocally. For the master class with Garanča, he sang ‘La belle jeunesse’ from Francis Poulenc’s Chansons gaillardes, which he delivered with a hearty cheerfulness. Garanča suggested that he add a bit of sentiment, just as Rowan Atkinson mixes humor and pathos in creating Mr. Bean, to make his interpretation more complex and human. For the recital, Quant, who studied composition as an undergraduate in his native Columbia, sang two pieces from his own song cycle, Sombros; the despair, as well as the scintillating sound, simply flowed from him.

With far more experience under his belt, baritone Johnathan McCullough, the singer in the Bernstein excerpt with the lengthy introduction, upped the concept of collaboration. At the final concert, he and Sikich performed ‘Two Marines’ from David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, a multimedia event that combines elements of theater, opera, rock-infused concert music and animation to explore the perceptions versus the realities of being a soldier, the exploration of loss, the exploitation of innocence and the difficulty of expressing the truth of war.

‘Two Marines’ begins with an ex-Marine receiving a letter stating that his son has been killed. While the father read the letter and attempted to digest the news, the audience watched pictures of a smiling toddler playing. As the music faded, a pair of empty combat boots sat at the rear of the stage. It was if we had fallen into a fathomless abyss.

There were special moments from all the singers, to say nothing of the pianists. The beauty of Natalie Buickians’s soprano was best displayed in Edvard Grieg’s ‘Die verschwiegene Nachtigall’, but she cast a magical spell in Claude Debussy’s ‘Le jet d’eau’ from Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire. With her soaring high notes and sweeping portamentos, Meghan Kasanders made Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Son’ seem lighter than air. The crystal-clear voice of soprano Anneliese Klenetsky perfectly etched Ophelia’s madness in the Strauss song and the delicate emotions and colors of four selections from Lili Boulanger’s song cycle Clairières dans le ciel.

Everything that mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn sang was as polished and captivating as her warm voice, especially Igor Stravinsky’s ‘A Song of the Dew’. Eric Carey’s lyric tenor was tailor-made for the Schubert songs that he performed, but his suave rendition of Marc Blitzstein’s ‘Stay in My Arms’ was stunning. Singular in appearance, style and voice, Dominik Belavy’s vivid impersonation of a peacock in Poulenc’s ‘Le paon’ from Poulenc’s Histoires naturelles was richly detailed and quite funny.

Several hundred more words could be written about the pianists who partnered the singers. Suffice it to say, without them SongStudio would just be another master class. With them, it is a true lesson in collaboration.

Rick Perdian

For more information on SongStudio, click here.

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