MasterVoices 2019 Review: Night Songs and Love Waltzes
A Rich & Textured Performance Featuring Unbelievable Music With Incredible ArtistsBy Jennifer Pyron
“Night Songs & Love Waltzes” was an evening of romantic era bliss for listeners and lovers of all ages that took place at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and featured Ted Sperling’s MasterVoices choir and guest artist soloists Nicole Cabell, Kate Aldrich, Nicholas Phan and Nmon Ford.
The program included 19th-Century Romantic German Song alongside Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Life is Love” to poems of Langston Hughes, which included a world premiere commission. Also featured was the New York premiere of Ted Sperling’s “Night Waltzes,” a choral suite from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”
“The concert celebrates the joy of informal music performance as part of daily life. In the mid-19th century, private music-making began to play an increasingly important role in the lives of the rising middle class. Home performances in the parlor or salon for the enjoyment of the family and a few friends became increasingly common, breaching the barrier between performer and audience. This trend offered a rich field for composers, who provided pieces suitable for performance by talented amateurs in an intimate, informal space. The genre was known as ‘Hausmusik’ – music for the home,” said Janet B. Pascal, a MasterVoices Writer-in-Residence.
Ted Sperling also commented on the genre of Hausmusik at the start of the program, as the four soloists and all one hundred plus members of the choir prepared to sing “Do I Hear a Waltz?”
Joy All Around
Sperling’s arrangement of Rodgers & Sondheim’s “Do I Hear a Waltz” was thematically rich and exciting as it focused on the dialogue between two sets of lovers, sung by the four soloists, and the MasterVoices choir. Everyone sang with vibrancy and joy as Sperling conducted.
Following this strong opening, was Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52,” which featured a variety of singer combinations throughout the set of sixteen songs, highlighted the unifying effect of shared expression conveyed in this genre. One could see a sea of smiles as the veil between the performers and the audience lifted. It was an intimate musical experience to be cherished by all.
Highlights of the Brahms’ selections also included “Unbewegte laue Luft,” performed as a solo by baritone Nmon Ford and accompanied by pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe. Both Ford and Roe displayed a balanced ebb-and-flow musical phrasing that brought to life images of Georg Friedrich Daumer’s poem: “Motionless mild air, Nature deep at rest; Through the still garden night only the fountain plashes; But my soul swells with a more ardent desire.” Ford’s voice blossomed into the moment when Daumer exclaims “Come, ah! Come, that we might give each other heavenly satisfaction!”
Piano Duo & More
The audience was introduced to the famous piano duo Anderson & Roe via Sperling’s story about how he first discovered them while they practiced on the other side of a wall where Sperling happened to be at just the right time. He said he knew at that moment that he was destined to work with them someday because he could feel their palpable chemistry even through the wall!
True to his description, the duo proved to be exceedingly outstanding live performers. Anderson & Roe’s special arrangement of Brahms’ “Virtuoso Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F-sharp minor” was reminiscent of the gypsy style and showcased their intimacy while playing piano four-hand.
The MasterVoices Men’s Chorus performed Robert Schumann’s “Jagdlieder” song cycle along with a horn quartet featuring Zohar Schondorf, Steven Sherts, Kyle Hoyt, and Shelagh Abate. It was a solid combination of warm vocal timbre paired with the clarity and precision of the horns.
Following “Jaglieder,” was the MasterVoices Women’s Chorus singing with mezzo-soprano soloist Kate Aldrich for Franz Schubert’s “Ständchen.” This featured Aldrich singing Franz Grillparzer’s poem that called for listener’s to keep watch and wonder while staying awake with thoughts of love. Aldrich sang with a reflective tone that characteristically illustrated Grillparzer’s longing text.
“Night Waltzes (from A Little Night Music” by Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler, and newly arranged by Sperling) was performed post-intermission and featured all four soloists and a women’s trio of MasterVoices singers Nicole Coffaro, Becca Hare, and Jill Melanie Wirth.
This was an exciting start to the second half and echoed the waltz style from the beginning of the program. Clara Schumann’s “Gondoliera” followed. As MasterVoices choir sang a cappella, the women’s voices carried into the performance hall with an air of delight while they brought to life Emanuel Geibel’s poem about “The Gondolier Woman.”
One of the most transcending moments of the night was during Nicholas Phan’s performance of Robert Schumann’s “Mondnacht” which was accompanied by piano only. Phan’s special care when phrasing and articulating Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem “Moonlit Night” was exquisite. His outpouring of emotion could be felt, especially as he sang “and my soul spread, her wings out wide, flew across the silent land, as thought flying home.” However, even in the strongest moments of expression, Phan’s tone remained balanced and perfectly placed, showcasing a seemingly effortless purity.
Some Fun With Piazzolla
Anderson & Roe’s most extravagant performance of the night was during their own special arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” At the start of the piece, Roe placed her hands strategically on the piano’s bass strings while Anderson focused solely on the keyboard. Roe rotated back and forth between this action and playing the keyboard herself along with Anderson to imitate the physical extension of her long legs and extended back as would be characteristic to a tango style pose.
The two gradually developed into a moment of heated passion while playing the piano that interrupted the piece and then switched the roles of the two players to have Anderson on the bass strings and Roe playing the main melody. It was an entertaining and fun performance that had the audience in a roaring applause of appreciation.
Eight Exquisite Songs
Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Life is Love, Settings of Langston Hughes, a Piano Piece, and a New Commission by MasterVoices,” concluded the night’s program with eight pieces that featured Gordon’s profound gift of modern art song composition. “Dream Variations” was the first song and was interpreted by Cabell with such exquisite artistry that even Gordon himself could be seen in the audience, beaming with pride. Cabell expanded her voice and proved to be the master of her own craft, especially while she sang “to fling my arms wide, in the face of the sun, dance!, whirl!, whirl!”
“New Moon” was performed by the soloists and MasterVoices choir which added to the depth and catchy melody of the overall piece. “There’s a new young moon, riding the hills tonight” might still be playing in the mind’s of those that heard this performance. It is a clever and lighthearted song that was perfect for the chorus and soloists to sing together.
Nmon Ford’s performance of Gordon’s “Prayer” might have been the most superbly inspirational moment of the night. The song is set to a text that says: “I ask you this: which way to go? I ask you this: which sin to bear? Which crown to put upon my hair, I do not know, Lord God, I do not know.” Ford was completely immersed in every word that he sang and there were moments where his voice was so attached to the soul of this piece that it literally brought to life the purpose behind one’s questioning of the meaning of life and man’s existence in the face of God. Not to be taken lightly, this piece might be considered by some as the heart and soul of this set of songs. Ford was a knockout in his delivery and will be forever cherished for his performance.
“God” was a MasterVoices commission, underwritten by Susan Baker and Michael Lynch, that was said by Sperling to have been composed by Gordon as a gift to and about Sperling. This song was also another strong moment in this program that highlighted Kate Aldrich’s rich mezzo-soprano voice and Gordon’s gift of composition. It focused on the complexity of being God and the simplicity of being human, especially as Aldrich sang “Spring! Life is love! Love is life only! Better to be human, than God – and lonely.”
This performance on the whole might have been one of the most expansive and richly varied concerts I’ve attended in quite some time.