Tuesday October 18th, 2016 - Soprano Lisette Oropesa (above, photographed by Steven Harris) making her Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center debut in the opening concert of the Society's 2016-2017 season.
The program commenced with a charming performance of Haydn's 'Surprise' symphony, and if the element of surprise in this very familiar work has long since evaporated, there was still a murmur of delight which passed thru the packed house when that 'wake up!' chord sounded. The symphony, a veritable fountain of melodic and rhythmic delights, was played by an ensemble of top-notch musicians: the kind of artists that maintain the Society's impeccable standards.
With Michael Brown's wonderfully attentive and polished playing of the Steinway setting the pace, we could relish the divine piping of Tara Helen O'Connor's flute and a most pleasing mixture of swiftness and sweetness from Erin Keefe's violin. Danbi Um, in a pretty forest-green frock, stood out in a brief mingling of voices with Ms. O'Connor flute - Danbi would have more expansive opportunities in the Palestrina/Mendelssohn combination after the interval. Of the lower voices, Richard O'Neill's dusky viola sound and his deep involvement in the music are always most welcome; and though music stands blocked our view of Mihai Marica, his cello spoke clearly. This assemblage of musicians were as pleasing to watch as to hear, and they set the tone for the evening with their virtuosity and grace.
It seems incredible that ten years have passed since the voice of Lisette Oropesa first captured my imagination when she sang a very brief role in a performance of Mozart's IDOMENEO at The Met. I immediately seized on the notion that this was a singer who would be going places, and she has proven me correct: her career has positively bloomed, and she moves from engagement to engagement, conquering audiences from Munich to Santa Fe, from Dallas to Madrid. Conductors tend to love her, as much for her vocal clarity and musicianship as for her preparedness and sunshine-filled personality.
Lisette walked onstage this evening in a midnight-blue gown, jewels at her neckline, superbly coiffed: the very picture of elegance. With the one-and-only Gilbert Kalish at the Steinway, the soprano proceeded to captivate the audience with her shimmering voice and rapturous delivery. All of the things I love about her singing were in abounding evidence tonight: the distinctive colour, the mastery of dynamics, the magical turns of phrase, the imaginative way with words. In three Mendelssohn songs - "Wanderlied", "On the Wings of Song" and "Suleika" - Lisette cast a spell over the hall, and Mr. Kalish was a most valuable fellow sorcerer. Together, they created an atmosphere of fascination; and the audience's enthusiastic response affirmed my feelings.
Soprano and pianist returned immediately, joined by David Schifrin; some Schifrin fans seated near me buzzed with anticipation. Following the brief piano introduction, the eminent clarinetist made a breathtaking entrance on the sustained tone that heralds Franz Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock"; moments later, Lisette began to sing and all seemed right with the world.
"Shepherd on the Rock" has the feeling of a bel canto scena. Passages of sustained lyricism give way to flights of coloratura, with voice and clarinet mingling in a way that reminds us a bit of the flute and soprano mix in Lucia di Lammermoor's 'Mad Scene'.
The singer must convey the moods of Schubert's shepherd: his delight in hearing his own voice echo back to him from the valley, his tender longing for his sweetheart far away, and his optimism at the coming of Spring. All this Lisette accomplished with her intrinsic sensitivity to the narrative, finding an ideal give-and-take with her collaborators. The vocal writing here covers a wide range, from peaky top notes to some unusual plunges to the depths; Lisette had it all at her fingertips, and her voice once again spun a web of enchantment. She and the two gentlemen basked in the audience's very cordial applause.
At a time when so many lyric-coloratura sopranos on the scene seem to me lacking in real distinction, Lisette shows us what a 'vocal personality' really is: it's not just the sound, nor the technique, nor the communicative gifts; nor really anything to do with physical attractiveness. It's a light from within, and that's what sets Ms. Oropesa apart from the rest.
Following the intermission, David Finckel let us know that we'd be hearing an added work this evening: a Mendelssohn fugue would follow the brief and rare Palestrina piece we were about to hear. Mr. Finckel then joined Danbi Um, Erin Keefe, and Richard O'Neill to perform Palestrina's 'Sanctus' from Missa Aeterna Christi Munera. The spiritual simplicity of the music, with its poignant beauty, was finely underscored by Mr. Finckel's gently resonant cello.
After only a brief pause, the quartet gave us the Mendelssohn fugue: it is launched by Richard O'Neill's velvety viola, taken up by Ms. Keefe and Ms. Um in turn, and then by the Finckel cello. This lovely work, perhaps too brief to be programmed often, displayed Danbi Um's satin-sheened tone and the appealing expressive qualities of her playing.
We had reached that point in the evening where the final work loomed before us. With all that had gone before, what kind of finale could be devised that would cap the performance in a properly spectacular way? With their customary flair for programming, the Society had kept an ace up their sleeve, and within literally five seconds of Michael Brown's introduction to the Ravel A-minor trio, I had goosebumps and a tingling spine. What playing from Mr. Brown and his colleagues, Ms. Keefe and Mr. Marica...simply astounding!
Ravel produced his only work in the piano-trio genre in a burst of fevered inspiration during the summer of 1914, as Europe’s armies mobilized for war. The result is one of Ravel's most intense - yet still lyrical - works.
Michael Brown immediately established the atmosphere of the opening movement with his darkish, misterioso playing. Ms. Keefe and Mihai Marica were well-matched in beauty of timbre. A remarkable sustained tone from the cellist was followed by Ms. Keefe's exquisite ascent to the heights: their perfumed mingling of voices gave me the chills. Simply ravishing passages in the upper reaches from the violin, and then the piano becomes more animated with a rising sense of drama. This subsides to a sweet cello theme; the players demonstrate fantastic pianissimo control. The violin goes deep, the piano quietens to a whisper. Spellbinding fade-away...an engrossing moment.
Immediately the mood shifts to bright and then lilting in the plucky second movement, featuring a rising motif and a skittishness that sets up a fun ending.
Mr. Brown's left-handed piano introduction to the third movement hints at the ominous; Mr. Marica's cello enters: pensive and low, whilst Ms. Keefe's violin expresses a sense of yearning. In a hypnotic interlude, Mr. Brown drew me ever deeper into the mood with his incredibly intimate playing. The cello and then the violin re-enter; passion builds, and it's sublime. Following a soft string duo, the cello sinks to the deep register, and the piano even deeper.
The finale commences high and buzzy, with a light, bright texture. All three musicians are simply sailing along, and a feeling of rapture develops. Ms. Keefe and Mr. Marica launch a series of trills that might go on forever; but then the swirls and eddies of melody sweep everything forward, to a simply gorgeous end. Such extraordinary playing of an extraordinary piece: the audience burst into eager applause, and the three musicians were called back for a second bow.
Marilyn Horne was in the audience tonight, bless her heart. And having Lisette Oropesa and Richard O'Neill on the same program gave me the notion of wanting to hear them together in William Bolcom's Let Evening Come. This song cycle was composed for the beloved soprano Benita Valente, to whose voice Lisette's bears a kinship; as a Met Young Artist, a decade ago, Lisette had an opportunity to work with Ms. Valente. I've been listening to Benita's atmospheric recording, and now I'm really wanting to hear the Bolcom performed live.
- Haydn Symphony in G major for Piano, Flute, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Hob. I:94, "Surprise" (1791)
- Mendelssohn Selected Songs for Soprano and Piano, Opp. 34 and 57 (1835-41)
- Schubert Der Hirt auf dem Felsen for Soprano, Clarinet, and Piano, D. 965, Op. 129 (1828)
- Palestrina Sanctus from Missa Aeterna Christi Munera (1590)
- Ravel Trio in A minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello (1914)