United States Various: Daniel McGrew (tenor), Sophia Zhou (piano). Young Concert Artists, Merkin Hall, New York, 8.12.2022. (RP)
Brahms – ‘Sagt mir, o schönste Schäf’rin mein’; ‘Es steht ein’ Lind’; ‘Schwesterlein, Schwesterlein’; ‘In stiller Nacht’; ‘Die Sonne scheint nicht mehr’ (from Deutsche Volkslieder WoO 33)
Nina Shekhar – ‘Pieces of You’ (World Premiere)
Debussy – Trois Mélodies sur des poèmes de Paul Verlaine
Christopher Berg – ‘Autobiographia Literaria’; ‘St. Paul and All That’; ‘Song (is it dirty?)’; ‘Steps’ (from Songs on Poems of Frank O’Hara)
Britten – The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35
Harold Arlen – ‘Buds Won’t Bud’; ‘It’s a New World’
Tenor Daniel McGrew can sing a song. Any song, it seems. It is as easy to imagine him in a nightclub or on a Broadway stage as singing an art song in recital. The winner of the 2021 Young Concert Artists International auditions touched those bases and more in his outstanding New York recital debut at Merkin Hall.
The concert opened with five selections from Brahms’s collection of Deutsche Volkslieder. Songs such as ‘Sagt mir, o schönste Schäf’rin mein’ or ‘Schwesterlein, Schwesterlein’ afforded McGrew the opportunity to display his narrative skills in Brahms’s lyrical settings of bittersweet exchanges between lovers. McGrew’s sense of line, his ability to create a mood and the sheer beauty of his voice made ‘In stiller Nacht’ magical.
’Pieces of You’, an astounding new work by Nina Shekhar, YCA’s 2021-2023 Composer-in-Residence, followed. More a dramatic scena for voice and piano than a song, ‘Pieces of You’ was a collaboration between composer and singer in which Shekhar set words, or in her words ‘redeemed’ them, written by the adolescent McGrew.
The fragments of text are little more than stream-of-consciousness rantings which appear to chart the arc of a real or imagined relationship. Shekhar, however, transformed them into a descent into neurotic obsession. The piano amplifies the emotional impact by adding another dimension to the mental anguish through rhythm and sound.
McGrew’s visage was that of a desperate man combatting the inner demons that beset him. He was at his most unnerving when repeating the same words over and over again, as if unable to dislodge them from his mind. There were passages in the work that demanded lyricism and beauty of tone, but it was McGrew’s ability to channel the inner desperation that Shekhar found in his words that made ‘Pieces of You’ an overwhelming experience.
With Debussy’s Trois Mélodies sur des poèmes de Paul Verlaine, McGrew transported the audience into a world where sensuality reigned. These are songs in which the sounds of words are as important in expressing a feeling or mood as are their meanings. McGrew’s sensibilities in this regard were equaled by Zhou’s ability to capture Debussy’s depictions of atmosphere and place in her playing.
The first half of the recital ended with four of Christopher Berg’s settings of poems by Frank O’Hara. Berg is a master of combining narration with a tuneful melody to capture the dry humor in O’Hara’s words. These are fun yet sophisticated songs that are often tinged with melancholy, none more so than ‘Steps’, in which McGrew conjured up glamour and the mundane with equal parts sincerity and panache.
Britten composed The Holy Sonnets of John Donne after performing in a concert with Yehudi Menuhin for displaced persons at Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp, just months after World War II ended in Europe. In his settings of Donne’s somber and pious religious texts, Britten was undoubtedly reacting to the experience of witnessing the aftermath of Nazi atrocities firsthand.
McGrew’s acute awareness of textural details was evident in each of the songs. There were instances of pure beauty, such as McGrew’s plaintive singing in ‘Oh might those sighes and teares return againe’. He is a singer, however, who can make melody when there is none, such as in ‘Since she whom I lov’d hath pay’d her last debt’. The final sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’ ended with a defiant, impassioned cry sung at full voice.
McGrew turned to lighter but no less sophisticated fare to end the recital, with two songs by Harold Arlen who is best known as the composer of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’. The tenor was a frustrated lover belting out a torch song in ‘Buds Won’t Bud’, whilst lavishing all the beauty of tone and joy that he could muster in ‘It’s a New World’.
Zhou was a superlative partner to McGrew in his foray into musical styles as diverse as one can imagine. Shekhar’s ‘Pieces of You’ was all the more impactful for the virtuosity with which she executed the demands the composer placed upon the pianist. In Debussy’s ‘Le son du cor s’afflige vers les bois’, she captured the languid mood of an autumnal forest. With her stylish playing in the Berg and Arlen songs, Zhou proved that she was every bit the showman as McGrew.
In a recital that was markable for its juxtaposition of musical styles, McGrew again made a complete U-turn with his only encore, ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. It was an expression of all that had come before, but it also harkened back to the last line of Berg’s ‘Autobiographia Literaria’. McGrew reveled at being at the center of all this beauty.