By John Y. Lawrence
Three impatient protagonists mourned their beloved departed Thursday night at the Ravinia Festival, all performed by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, accompanied by pianist Kevin Murphy.
One of these protagonists is quite familiar: the wandering title of Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The other two were from lesser-known works: Haydn’s cantata Arianna in Naxos and Korngold Lieder des Abschieds (Farewell songs).
Although Haydn composed over a dozen operas, little is remembered for his theatrical vocal music. For those who only know his instrumental works, the style of Arianna in Naxos must be a surprise. The typical Haydn melody and wit is absent, replaced by a more dramatic emphasis on painting psychological states.
DeYoung’s opulent tone doesn’t naturally suit Haydn. But the cantata’s long recitative periods require a singer capable of communicating Arianna’s ever-changing moods: denial, supplication, grief, rage. DeYoung excelled at all of this.
She was helped in large part by Murphy, who was celebrating his tenth birthday as director of the vocal program at the Steans Music Institute in Ravinia. (The concert ended with a video tribute from the many singers he has worked with.) His sparkling tone and careful attention to articulation brightened up Haydn’s piano part.
DeYoung was completely in his element in the works of Mahler and Korngold. It’s a testament to DeYoung’s skill as a singer actress that she explored so much variety and nuance amid the almost relentless gloom of these songs.
Amid the all-pervading darkness, the opening of ‘Ging heut’ Morgens über’s Feld ‘was one of the few rays of sunshine. DeYoung’s interpretation was somewhat unusual – it began in a full-throated triumph (with the song of the finch), then each successive stanza became less daringly confident (the bells already more hesitant) until the dark conclusion is reached. She and Murphy sought a maximum contrast between the austere opening of the funeral march of “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” and the dreamy lime evoked in the song’s conclusion.
The last element of the program, Korngold’s Lieder des Abschieds, is in the same late Romantic Straussian style of his opera Die Stadt Tote.
Some of Murphy’s best work of the evening was in “Mond, so gehst du wieder auf”. He delicately rendered all the different degrees of sweetness that Korngold calls for in Debussy block chords. The cycle’s concluding song, “Gefasster Abschied,” is full of treacherous leaps. But DeYoung navigated them with apparent ease, never letting them interfere with maintaining a smooth, smooth line.
The performances were prefaced by poetry readings by actress J. Nicole Brooks. Reciting poetry between songs is no longer a novelty, and well-chosen poems are essential for this business to rise above gadgets.
Only one poem really succeeded. Christina Rossetti’s “Ariadne à Thésée” linked to Haydn and Rossetti’s “Requiem” appears in the Korngold. Brooks delivered a suitably moderate reading. Her exuberant interpretation of “When the Big Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou also fits the text well.
However, his reading of Pablo Neruda’s “Tonight I Can Write” bordered on the odd. What should be one of the greatest expressions of poetry’s romantic loss has been marred by awkward pacing and casually thrown lines.
James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra present an all-Mozart program with violinist William Hagen 8 p.m. Friday in Ravinia. ravinia.org
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