Mostly Mozart 2019 Festival Review: ‘A Little Night Music’ with Susanna Phillips & Myra Huang

A Wondrous Recital With Great Insight On Some Fascinating Artists

By Logan Martell
(Credit: Kevin Yatarola)

On July 30, 2019, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival took to the Kaplan Penthouse for a concert lit by candlelight, as part of their “A Little Night Music” concert series. This episode featured soprano Susanna Phillips, accompanied by pianist Myra Huang, the latter making her debut with the Mostly Mozart Festival.

The evening’s program consisted of songs chosen from female composers Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Alma Mahler, and Clara Schumann; figures who lived in, and in turn enlivened, the Romantic period in which they worked.

After the lights dimmed and the cocktail chatter faded, Phillips and Huang strode onstage, diving straight into a lovely rendition of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s “Morning Serenade.” The quick, fluttering opening was met by the warm, inviting phrases from Phillips, whose command of the German language heard expression through the way she crisply bit into certain consonants while smoothing out sections that were more lyrical.

On Hensel

Following this introductory piece, Huang took a moment to get the audience better acquainted with Hensel and the place she occupied in the culture of her time.

“We’re going to start with a small group of songs by Fanny Hensel. We all know her famous brother Felix Mendelssohn, we love him so much. She was just as talented as he was, but in that age it was difficult for her to have a career; her family strongly discouraged her from having a musical career. Her father in particular encouraged her to stay home and take care of the family and her child, and she actually gladly did so; she wasn’t bitter about it, but we know there’s so much music the world could have received,” Huang noted.

“She was a virtuoso on the piano, she memorized Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ by age 13; I know I didn’t do that. She studied with her mother in the beginning and eventually studied with one of the most prominent piano teachers, whose name was Carl Zelter. Zelter was the musical advisor to the famous poet Goethe,” the pianist continued. “So she was extremely talented, she arranged concerts at home, she composed music at home, and eventually she married a wonderful man named Wilhelm Hensel, who really supported her and her music. The day after her wedding, he sat her down at the piano and put some manuscript paper in front of her, saying ‘I want you to do your music.’

“She was blessed to have a supportive husband, and although we have about 460 pieces of work from her, she died quickly at the age of 42 from a stroke, but we know she was just as talented as her brother Felix. She received probably the best compliment a woman might have received during that time when her teacher, Zelter, said to Goethe about her, ‘Fanny is something very special. She plays like a man.’ We’ve come a long way since Fanny’s time, we still have a way to go, but we’re really excited to share her songs with you tonight.”

The second selection from Hensel was “Why are the roses so pale?” The questioning observations and sentiments fittingly had a more contemplative accompaniment, as the strophic nature of the lied created a brooding circle of emotions and tones before Huang brought the piece to a disconsolate close. Exploring this sense of melancholy further was the third selection, “The May Night.”

As Phillips laid out the imagery, the phrase “a pair of doves coo to me their delight; yet I turn away,” bore a soft, envious tone that was bittersweet and vocally lovely; these feelings of separation carried through the piece, as Phillips molded her sorrow to either quickened delivery of the text, or to more lugubrious legato, as heard in the way she sadly extended the single word tear in the phrase “And a lonely tear quivers more fervently down my cheek.” Wrapping up the songs from Hensel was “Italy.”

The text, written by Franz Grillparzer, stood out for its elevated, Romantic language which unfolded after the phrase “Separated from the burden and toil of prose, I go forth into the realm of Poetry.” In this way, Phillips laid out imagery ranging from the quaint and natural to the mythic and divine, such as “Defiant Poseidon, was it you, joking and mumbling down there so sweetly? …Will you, Parthenope, bring peace to the waves?”

On Mahler

Following these four, came selections from Alma Mahler, with Phillips shedding light on Mahler’s connections to the figures of the time.

“Myra and I were talking about Alma,” began Phillips. “The first word that came to mind was ‘romantic.’ Her music is romantic, her life was romantic, I mean this woman… this woman had affairs with, or was friends with, just about every incredible artist and musician of the time. Gustav Klimt gave her her first kiss; she was in a relationship with Zemlinsky; she was in a relationship with Alban Berg; she married Gustav Mahler; she was an incredible woman, who ended up in America and lived out her days here. She was married three times, divorced only once, and when she was in a relationship with Zemlinsky, she met Gustav Mahler. I mean, the man of the time, and they began an affair. She quickly broke up with Zemlinsky, and married Mahler, but Mahler was less, shall we say… nice?

“Compared to Wilhelm Hensel, instead of welcoming her artistic talent, when they were getting married he asked her ‘Can’t my music be our music?’ Alma tried, she loved Mahler, so she wanted to make it work; she jumped in with both feet, had two children, and stopped composing, but she lived a stifled life with him,” Phillips continued. “If you’re living with only half of yourself, it doesn’t really work. There was a year that Mahler called the ‘year of the hammer.’ Gustav Mahler found out he had a terminal illness, he found out Alma was having an affair with a man who she would marry and divorce, and one of their children died. He was beside himself, and I don’t know why,  but he took out her music, her five songs which we will be singing tonight, and he edited them for publication.

“One day when she was walking into the house, he was playing them at the piano, and from that point on he invited her to have her full self in their marriage; she stayed with him until he did pass away. In her music you can hear this woman, and you can hear the influences of some of the great composers of the time: Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Wagner; really incredible influences, but you can hear her too. She was dramatic; she loves you know, playing with the line; there’s a lot of start and stops; there’s a lot of variations. If you look at her texts, and listen to her music, you can hear this sultry, sexy, seductive Alma, that I wish was my friend.”

The first piece, “The Quiet Town,” saw Phillips display a pensive, almost cautious vocal shade that tinged the texture of her soprano as she outlined the blank, desolate imagery of the text. Huang’s accompaniment came in the form of dense, uneasy chords, their fluidity deftly evoking the obscuring fog of the middle stanza.

The second piece, “In my father’s garden,” was more extended, but painted a romantic and satisfying musical arc, as Phillips continued to flesh out the returning phrase of “sweet dream” in loving and idyllic ways.

The last two selections from Mahler sustained the sensual atmosphere; at two stanzas each their brevity was lessened by how well they flowed from one to the other. The first, “With you I am at ease,” saw Huang’s accompaniment matching the steamy whirring of thoughts that grew on Phillips’ face as she beckoned “Come, say you love me, yet not too loudly!”

The last “I walk among flowers,” rose from a relaxed tempo into a passionate and very public scene at a garden.

On Schumann

Bringing the recital to an end were five selection From Clara Schumann, with Phillips elaborating on the former’s influence on her own artistry.

“Myra and I are both working mothers: Something we complain about, something we love, and something we talk a lot about in rehearsal. It is difficult, it is a challenge, it is hard; but when I think of a tremendous working mother, Clara Schumann has it.

“This woman carried and bore eight children , she took care of those children, took care of some of their children. She had a happy marriage to Robert Schumann, who she was married to for his whole life, and she maintained a concert career of over 200 performances a year, most of which she traveled for. Absolutely tremendous, and you can hear that soul in her music. The thing I love about her compositions is that Robert encouraged her to write songs. In their marriage, Robert was the song guy and she was the piano woman, and he said: ‘you know what? You should try writing some songs,’ reluctantly she did and I am so glad that she did. When you hear these songs, you hear that the piano is an equal partner. I have the great fortunate of collaborating with the great Myra Huang, and when we work together it is an equal collaboration, and I really feel that to be true.”

The first three selections came from Schumann’s “Drei Lieder, Op. 12,” Opening with “He came in storm and rain,” the audience was quickly swept up by the tumultuous pouring of notes from Huang’s accompaniment. The quickened pleading of Phillips’ start flowed toward the more tranquil uncertainty of the middle section, overcoming these feelings with clear, rejoicing tones in the phrase “I watch serenely, for he shall be mine wherever he goes.” Following this was “If you love for beauty.” The charming and simple chords laid out by Huang worked well to convey the bashful yet beautiful sentiments delivered by Phillips. As she made her way down the list of natural beauty more lovely than herself, when she reached the phrase, “If you love for love, oh yes, love me!” Phillips coupled this with a small, excited bounce, as if unable to contain her effervescent feelings.

The next number, “Lorelei,” saw Phillips and Huang dive right into the drama of the music and text, recounting a tale of a mermaid’s lethal beauty and sonority. The strong, declamatory tones in Phillip’s voice soared over the tremolo of Huang’s accompaniment; the sinking of the doomed sailors were evoked by Huang’s soft, plunging chords that tapered into the piano’s depths.

Last on the program was “The good night I send to you,” with Phillips’ lush and tender tones served to gently wrap a bow and top off the evening’s brief, but highly gripping, recital.


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