Young mezzo Kelsey Lauritano shows mature and winning artistry

Thu Apr 04, 2019 at 12:57 pm
Kelsey Lauritano performed at National Sawdust Wednesday night.

Kelsey Lauritano performed at National Sawdust Wednesday night.

In an ideal world, musical competitions ought to recognize and elevate previously unknown talent. If Wednesday’s touring program at National Sawdust in Williamsburg is any indication, the Music Academy of the West’s Marilyn Horne Song Competition fulfills that mission brilliantly, as its most recent winners, mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano and pianist Andrew Sun, made clear in a brief but formidable recital.

The evening started with a quick Schubert set: Lauritano brought a lovely, focused sound in “Ganymed,” a mezzo of clear amber color, rich without heaviness. She showed off a warm soft voice and firm lower register in “Du bist die Ruh,” followed by nimbleness in “Suleika I.” 

What stands out about her singing is not her voice or her technique per se, though both are strong. What is most impressive is her approach: there is clear expressive intent behind every choice she makes. She communicates so much with a small vocal inflection, a quickening of vibrato towards the climax of a phrase, or a harder attack on a consonant to signal excitement.

Ravel’s Histoires naturelles offered her a chance to be more dramatic in her presentation, drawing enchanting character portraits of Jules Renard’s animals. In the hands of a singer so in tune with text as Lauritano, these are rich works: she gave the songs a narrative touch, bringing out the smooth confidence of the peacock, the fleeting wit of the cricket, the grace of the swan. She sang with perfect control, precisely modulating both pace and dynamics, without ever losing her conversational interpretative ease.

Sun’s playing in the Schubert and the Ravel felt dry, but he came to life for the third set of the program, Ricky Ian Gordon’s song cycle Without Music. 

Gordon wrote the cycle after he lost his partner to AIDS in 1996, setting poems written by Marie Howe in memory of her brother, who was claimed by the same disease. Loss is certainly a subtext, but these songs focus rather on life, their sonorities bright and their texts fondly reminiscent. 

Gordon’s writing for piano often provides extra illustration for the text, and in Sun’s hands the images were vivid. The vocal writing in this cycle is direct, giving a sense of purpose to the line rather than the searching, wandering feeling that characterizes a lot of contemporary melodic writing. Gordon’s style certainly isn’t spare, but no gesture feels wasted.

The evening closed with Manuel da Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas. Lauritano doesn’t quite have the ideal smoke in her voice for these songs, but she absolutely has the flair and flexibility for them. She maintained her colorful dramatic presence, leaning into the sultry side of the “Seguidilla murciana,” contrasting with quietly expressive phrasing in “Asturiana.” Most of the evening she performed with calm poise, so at the end of a well-selected and varied program it was striking to see her let loose with the raging intensity of “Polo.”

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National Sawdust itself is a terrific venue, and has been doing an admirable job of bringing classical music—in particular contemporary classical—to a wider audience. Right off the Bedford Ave L stop, within walking distance of the dive bars of McCarren Park, attached to a hot restaurant, and sporting cabaret seating with a bar of its own, it is a spectacularly hip institution that deftly treads the line between rethinking audience experience and offering substantive programming. 

All of this makes their questionable decision to employ “acoustic enhancement,” as in Wednesday’s recital, surprising. The small cabaret space is certainly dry, but using overhead speakers to try to brighten the sound was more distracting than helpful. Why add studio reverb to a live performance by a singer who’s standing ten feet away?

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One Response to “Young mezzo Kelsey Lauritano shows mature and winning artistry”

  1. Posted Apr 04, 2019 at 8:56 pm by Cullen

    I absolutely agree on the amplification front. Totally forgot to mention that in my review, but you are right, it was odd.

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