Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone

I switched on the radio today and was startled to hear a piece of music that I consider a masterpiece, “Apparition” by George Crumb. Crumb wrote the piece, set to excerpts of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for the great Jan DeGaetani, who premiered it in 1981. The first time I heard the piece was in 1993, when my friend Mary Nessinger sang it in a recital she gave as a competition winner, and her performance remains one of the great musical experiences of my life. I had the privilege of singing the piece myself in 2003, at which time an audience member unbelievably told me that she considered my interpretation to be the “definitive” one. That is simply not true, though I don’t think she was maliciously lying, just caught up in the moment.

Today, however, I was shocked to recognize the voice of Renée Fleming singing the piece. Her voice is very recognizable, of course, but even more so are her vocal “tics,” such as the way she has of overemphasizing certain words, consonants, and syllables. While I admire her as an artist in her own genre, I thought her interpretation of Crumb to be entirely wrong. It was, first of all, too loud. The score indicates extremely scaled-down dynamics throughout most of the piece. And it was too operatic, too outwardly-directed; the piece is intensely inward-looking, truly innig, as the Germans say, escept for two movements. And finally, it calls for great humility. When one looks at Crumb’s elaborately detailed, handwritten score, one knows that one is expected to toe the composer’s line. It’s about submitting totally to his soul, his genius, and that of Walt Whitman, something that Jan DeGaetani and Mary Nessinger both did in spades in their performances (DeGaetani's is recorded on Bridge Records), which is a big part of what makes them great artists.

The only opera singer I can think of who might do this piece justice (though I know it’s also been assayed by Dawn Upshaw and Christine Schaefer; I haven’t heard their versions) is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died tragically young last year.

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