Marilyn Horne’s 80th fêted in starry fashion at Carnegie Hall
On Thursday night Carnegie’s Zankel Hall witnessed a starry tribute to one of the world great singers, and a pillar of the hall since her New York debut there in 1961: the unique mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, celebrating her 80th birthday to the day. Coming amid the yearly series of master classes and workshops in song literature that the singer’s foundation stages at Carnegie, the “Marilyn Horne Song Celebration” reminded one of the incredible stylistic breadth of Horne’s professional activity, and how influential her work as both a musical explorer—particularly of American song–and as a mentor has been on subsequent generations.
Ten varied vocalists of several generations appeared and offered sung tributes, solo and duet. The event was well planned and executed by three longtime Horne associates: pianist Martin Katz (sharing skillful accompaniment with Warren Jones), agent Matthew Epstein and Carnegie’s director of artistic planning, Jeremy Geffen.
Two colleagues of the next generation after Horne who sang with her and whose career paths were directly influenced by her—Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey– gamely and entertainingly hosted and read the narration, before starting the second half with an amusing “I remember it well” from Gigi. Both sounded mellow and rested, retaining their personal stamp; von Stade’s instrument remains remarkably steady. Only one major gaffe in the narration; a 1960 Wozzeck, which brought Horne back from her Gelsenkirchen apprentice years to star in San Francisco, was most certainly not Berg’s drama’s American première: Philadelphia heard it in 1931 and both NYCO and the Met in the 50s.
All of the composers represented–and some of the compositions–had some link to Horne’s career. Lester Lynch started off the evening with two of Copland hymn-like Old American songs, “Simple Gifts” and “Zion’s Walls”—a Horne concert staple. Lynch’s vibrant timbre and clear diction suited the second number in particular, though it proved less a match for the legato-driven second part of “Eri tu”—a bit of a stretch as an inclusion, since Horne never sang in Ballo in Maschera.
The other up-and-coming singers included soprano Brenda Rae and two contrasting gifted mezzos, Jamie Barton and Isabel Leonard. Rae, now Frankfurt-based and wowing major European capitals, tackled Schubert’s complex “Lied der Delphine” with musical grace and sparkling lyric-coloratura sheen. She was impressive as to trills and staccati if less vocally imposing in Les Huguenots’ “O beau pays” Barton sounded fantastic–rich and flowing–both in a soulful “Urlicht” (the wrenching Knaben Wunderhorn song Mahler deploys in the Second Symphony) and in joining David Daniels for a terrific “Son nata a lagrimar”—from Giulio Cesare. Barton’s tone in the Mahler made the audience hold its breath.
Leonard, as ever, looked lovely and carried herself like a model Total Package Artist. She scored in one of Montsalvatge’s Canciones negras, offering style, flair and lovely cool timbre. Cenerentola’s final scene by contrast fell rather flat (though the audience cheered): Leonard, too physically dazzling for any kind of Cinderella story to be credible, lacked the pathos and internality for the initial aria and the sense of explosive wonderment for the cabaletta, which also turned shrill and pitchy.
Daniels concentrated on legato numbers, sounding elegaic and smooth in Gluck’s “O mio dolce ardor” and working his unique take on Alec Wilder’s “Blackberry Winter, a song he inhabits fully. Renée Fleming and Piotr Beczala, rehearsing Rusalka at the Met, demonstrated apt chemistry in Lehár’s “Lippen schweigen”, the tenor’s straightforward, sunnily Gedda-ish operetta style yielding to the soprano’s current oversophisticated approximations, rewarding mostly for high notes.
Horne’s courage and determination in facing down a serious cancer diagnosis nearly ten years ago may have lent the selection of material a largely sobersided, inward cast. Her fellow legend Barbara Cook- still the complete mistress of her art– and her pianist Lee Musiker ended the concert with the rueful, contemplative “Here’s to Life.”
Except in some of von Stade and Ramey’s anecdotes, there was little room for the kind of raucous humor Horne could demonstrate onstage in Italiana in Algeri or bantering with Johnny Carson on TV. But what the artist continues to accomplish in her chosen profession speaks to her amazing energies; she looked very handsome in her side box, eventually joining her fellow musicians onstage, where she gave a gracious and heartfelt speech, thanking everyone (terming the 86 year old Cook “the eighth wonder of the world”) and introducing her family.