The stars come out for London Foundation concert
For twenty years now the George London Foundation has been presenting its recital series at the Morgan Library and Museum. In that time, notable alumni of the Foundation’s singing competition have certainly been known to pop in for performances. But it is the opportunity to promote promising young singers, the future stars of American opera, in an intimate setting that makes the London recital series such a valuable part of New York’s musical life.
So it was a bit strange to go to Gilder Lehrman Hall, the Morgan’s 300-seat jewel-box auditorium, and see a parade of superstar singers. Wednesday night’s concert, a twentieth anniversary celebration, was an impressive program in its own right and a reminder of just how many important careers the London Foundation has touched.
Christine Brewer began the program with two selections from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. She still has ample vocal power, to the point that her voice even sounded a little unwieldy at times: in “Träume” her phrasing suffered somewhat as she labored to keep her instrument in control. She sounded far more comfortable later on, giving a moving rendition of “My long life,” the gorgeous, big-hearted aria from Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All.
Still, the Wesendonck Lieder exemplified a phenomenon that would be a defining theme of the concert: extraordinary piano playing. Craig Rutenberg was an absolute wizard in these songs, playing with a delicate touch and supple phrasing. He brought an otherworldly glow to “Der Engel,” and followed Brewer perfectly.
Ken Noda was no less impressive, giving a limpid accompaniment to “Vi ravviso” from La sonnambula. Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel, the youngest of Wednesday’s singers, showed a liquid, smooth tone that was immediately likable. He labored a little more than he needed to, but sang a lovely, breathing cadenza and had plenty of voice for full, sustained low notes. His interpretation of Copland’s “Boatman’s Dance” was impressive, achieving a perfect contrast between the declamatory and gauzy iterations of the refrain, and singing with vital energy in the tripping verse.
The veterans of the London program brought considerable glamor to the event, though not all were in peak singing shape. Eric Owens sounded a little stretched in his first selection, “Infelice! E tuo credevi” from Ernani. It was bass-baritone night at the Morgan. James Morris sang a medley of Don Quixote’s songs from Man of La Mancha that included an unusually tender rendition of “Dulcinea,” though the tessitura of the role is not currently flattering to his voice. In addition to serving as emcee for the night, Ben Heppner gave a thoughtful rendition of the popular World War I song “Roses of Picardy,” achieving admirable clarity and ring when singing at full voice in his upper range.
Susanne Mentzer sounded shrill in “Sein wir wieder gut” from Ariadne auf Naxos. She fared better in her scene from Norma with Sondra Radvanovsky, which started off somewhat generic but by the time it reached “Mira o Norma” was touchingly portrayed.
For her part, Radvanovsky blazed fiercely in her top notes. To hear them at such close range is thrilling, if not always flattering—the bright acoustic of the hall puts a hard edge on all female upper registers. In her account of Rusalka’s song to the moon, Radvanovsky seemed still to be in her Elizabethan invective mode (currently on display in Roberto Devereux at the Met), but this was an interesting take, relying not so much on nuanced shaping as on her rich, dark sound and booming high voice.
The best vocal performances came from Ailyn Pérez, who showed a terrific feel for a selection of Spanish songs by Fernando Obradors. The Mozartean clarity of her voice at first seemed an unusual fit for this repertoire, but she conveyed sultry charm with her free phrasing and smallish but smoky chest voice. The third of this set, “Del cabello mas sutil,” has a winding, romantic melody that could easily be mistaken for Puccini, and Pérez sang it in that spirit, giving a spacious, dreaming interpretation. She showed flamenco flair in the traditional song “El vito,” singing with infectious enthusiasm while Noda nearly played himself off the bench with his athletic, fiery accompaniment.
As many fine vocal performances as there were on this program, the real stars of the evening were the two accompanists, Noda and Rutenberg. A single item for the two of them without voice, a four-hand transcription of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” was little more than an amusing trifle, but it offered an opportunity for the audience to give them the applause they so richly deserved.
The final recital of the George London Foundation series will be 4 p.m. May 15 at the Morgan Library and Museum, featuring Dmitri Pittas and Jennifer Johnson Cano, accompanied by Christopher Cano. georgelondon.org