The Crypt Sessions 2019 Review: Lucas & Irina Meachem

Power Couple Gives Haunting Performance at Sold-Out Concert

By Logan Martell

On March 7, 2019, lovers of classical music gathered at the Church of the Intercession for the latest installment of Unison Media’s celebrated series, The Crypt Sessions.

These concerts, curated by company president Andrew Ousley, often sell-out in minutes due to not only the limited size of the crypt, but the world-class performers that fill its depth with music. This night saw the performance of baritone Lucas Meachem, accompanied at the piano by his wife Irina, who is currently pregnant with their first child.

“Music has always been at the center of my heart and finally, I get to perform a recital that reflects that,” Meachem wrote of the evening’s program. “I take you along the most defining moments of my life through music, from my days growing up in rural North Carolina (Copland’s Old American Songs) to the illustrious journey as an aspiring opera singer (Gluck, Tchaikovsky, Corigliano) and finally my next unwritten chapter: fatherhood (Mahler).”

Starting with Strength

The Meachems opened with the aria “Le calme rentre dans mon coeur,” from Gluck’s “Iphigene en Tauride.”

Wielding tremendous power from the start, Lucas Meachem’s voice flooded through the crypt as he channeled the anguish of Orestes, with Irina Meachem hammering out forte chords. This dynamic weight, coupled with the intimate size of the crypt, seemed at odds with one another as the baritone’s voice seemed to carry well over the piano accompaniment in the earlier sections, yet it was breathtaking to hear and even feel these unique acoustic effects.

The second selection, “Were I a Man Whom Fate Intended,” from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” carried a strong, but tenderer bearing from Lucas Meachem, which was complimented by the lovely repeating figures in Irina Meachem’s accompaniment.

Following this was the madcap aria “They Wish They Could Kill Me,” from John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles.” The baritone and the LA Opera won a Grammy Award for the recording of their 2015 production of this modern work. Being a fanciful spin on Beaumarchais’ “The Guilty Mother,” we find Meachem’s Figaro now old and pursued by debtors, reflecting on his life while trying to preserve it all at once. This aria started with Irina Meachem knocking on the piano to evoke the furious debtors at the door, at which the baritone plunged into the dramatic context with a frantic, desperate vocal power. This was cut short by a sudden seize of pain, and several phrases outlining how poorly Figaro has aged; the next section saw the baritone pattering out all the professions and accomplishments accrued over the barber’s life. Each item on the list had its own gesture which he cycled through with great speed and comedic sensibility, such as the tap on the side of his nose he gave at the mention of having been a “pharmacist.” This patter section built in tempo until it erupted in an anguished fermata from the singing actor, backed by the pianist’s troubled, open chords and airy arpeggios. A repeat of knocking from the piano brought Figaro back to reality, and the aria to its original mood.

This last push against the forces closing in around him saw Lucas Meachem cycle through the former glories of Figaro once more, at the same time cycling through the steps of the Macarena, before ending with a massive fermata.

Into American Contemporary

Changing gears, the Meachems performed three selections from Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs,” with Lucas explaining their significance to his artistic career, saying: “These next three pieces all, for me, just represent my journey as a young – I won’t even say man – as a young teen in high school and I just started to learn ‘my gosh, I love to sing!’ And I loved it to the point that it was annoying to the people around me. I was always singing, I was always passionate about it and that’s the thing about passion; it can guide you if you let it. My father gave me good advice when I was younger and didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved singing and I loved basketball… so he told me ‘if you can make money doing something that gives you chills, then you’ll never work a day in your life.’ Never has it been more true than with what I do now. I mean, I work very hard to be here right now in front of you; it’s a lot of effort, but man, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I really wouldn’t. So, these pieces represent young Lucas as an upcoming North Carolina boy. These are Aaron Copland’s ‘Old American Songs.’”

The first, “Walls of Zion,” opened with Irina Meachem playing bright, lush chords and a frolicking melody. As the baritone laid out the beckoning lyrics of the verse, his voice quickly revealed not only a sweetness of quality, but a fun, youthful energy as heard by his repetitions of the phrase “We’ll shout and go ‘round the walls of Zion.” The second song, “At the River,” saw a more vulnerable softness from Lucas Meachem as he sang of the promise of salvation, but swelled to a fuller power when the imagery was that of the throne of God. This reverent, authoritative tone was used to bring the song to a firm, joyous close.

The last song, “Boatmen’s Dance,” began with a powerful opening from the singer on the phrase “High row the boatmen row, floatin’ down the river, the Ohio,” that flowed into a delicate repetition. After using his flexible voice to outline these two extremes, the duo took the song to a fun, jaunty middle ground for the choruses. This pattern ended up being broken by an overwhelmingly strong fermata from Lucas Meachem, which transitioned into a chilling pianissimo, as if everything had taken on a sudden, transformative beauty as the song eased to a close.

On Kindertotenlieder

Next on the program was Gustav Mahler’s haunting song cycle “Kindertotenlieder.” This cycle was the highlight of the evening, not just due to the venue of the crypt, but for its personal significance to the couple.

As the baritone explained: “The next piece in this program is a very beautiful piece. I’m so happy I was able to perform this for the first time this summer in Prague, with an orchestra, and it was an impressive and amazing experience so much so that I wanted to do it here. These poems are written by Friedrich Ruckert, who did not plan on writing them. He wrote these poems out of necessity. Ruckert lost two of his children, and this was a catharsis for him to write these poems. He never meant for them to be published, he never meant them to be found, but five years after his death Mahler found these poems and set them to music.”

“Mahler’s wife,” continued Irina Meachem, “warned him and said: ‘don’t write these songs, you’re tempting fate.’ He had children already, and he went into it with just five poems, the ones you’re about to hear, and he set them saying: ‘I couldn’t do this if I experienced the reality of losing a child, so I put myself in that situation. A few years later, his own child died. So as hard as it may be to put ourselves in that situation, we’d like to share our interpretation of this piece. It’s not songs about death for us, but the preciousness of life and the preciousness of our own existence.”

The first song, “Now the sun wants to rise so brightly,” languidly opened with a reflection on a recent tragedy. Lucas Meachem’s delivery seemed to be grasping for the right words to express the grief of the text, and when his lines tapered to silence, Irina Meachem’s accompaniment often used a somber yet skillful crossed hands technique. The poetry of Ruckert does marvels in attempting to express the boundless agony of losing a child, and the baritone illuminated this quality with phrases such as “A little lamp went out in my tent,” that elicit great sympathy. The second song, “Now I see well why such dark flames,” saw the singer using more dramatic anguish, exploring the amount of anger and pain felt by the narrator as Irina Meachem laid out lingering, unsettled chords. These intermingling emotions were well represented by the baritone’s wounded forte clashing with the imagery of the phrase “What are only eyes to you in these days, in future nights will be only stars,” before his soft conclusion brought everything together on a sorrowful note.

Third of the cycle was “When your mother walks in through the door.” This began with Irina’s accompaniment having a crestfallen, strolling rhythm, as if one is only able to take a few steps before being weighed down by woe. The text revolves around the empty spot by a doorway where a daughter used to enter with her mother, powerfully evoking her absence. This absence was filled with Lucas Meachem’s embittered, almost ranting phrases which seemed to tack on one after another as he lost emotional restraint; this lead into a gravely-low fermata on the end of the phrase “my dear daughter.” The similar delivery and music set to the phrase “Too quickly extinguished!” tied these two images together poignantly.

The following song, “I often think they’ve only gone out,” carried a false hope that was richly contrasted by the energy heard from both singer and pianist. This resulted in a brief and bitter reverie where Lucas Meachem’s delivery suggested one wishing against all reason that grim reality was not so.

Bringing the cycle to a conclusion was the song “In this weather, in this raging wind,” which fittingly opened with a tumultuous driving rhythm played by Irina Meachem. These stormy feelings were also reflected in the text, full of self-blame as well as admissions of helplessness, as well as gentler touches, such as the piano’s haunting melodic figure which smoothly transitioned into one of dawning acceptance. This resolution was brought home by the baritone’s warming repetitions on the phrase “They’re at peace as if in their mother’s house.”


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