A Birthday to Remember
Alice Tully Hall
Franz Schubert: Der Wanderer, D. 493 – Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D. 396 – Am Bach im Frühlinge, D. 361 – Wandrers Nachtlied I, D. 224 – Der Zwerg, D. 771, Op. 22, No. 1
Carl Loewe: Tom der Reimer, Op. 135a – Erlkönig, Op. 1, No. 3 – Odins Meeresrit, Op. 118
Johannes Brahms: Sonntag, Op. 47 (Fünf Lieder), No. 3 – Feldeinsamkeit, Op. 86 (Sechs Lieder), No. 2 – Botschaft, Op. 47 (Fünf Lieder), No. 1
Hugo Wolf: Der Genesene an die Hoffnung – Fussreise – Verbogenheit – Der Feuerreiter – Ganymed – Grenzen der Menschheit – Prometheus
Shenyang (bass-baritone), Vlad Iftinca (piano)
Shenyang (© Marco Guerra)
Shenyang was born in Tianjin, China, the only child of a law professor and the director of a performing arts group. Bookish by nature, he had planned to become a music professor. But, at age 16, his voice changed and he liked the result well enough to try for a place at the Shanghai Conservatory. Others liked it too and, at age 19, he was accepted. Just four years after that, in the spring of 2007, Renée Fleming taught a master class at the Conservatory, and Shenyang was invited to participate. He happened to mention to her that friends and teachers had encouraged him to compete in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest. Ms. Fleming was sufficiently impressed by what she heard that day to arrange for Shenyang to have a week of coaching at the Metropolitan Opera to help prepare him for the competition – which he won, exactly ten years after Dmitri Hvorostovsky carried off the trophy. And we all know what has happened to him!
And so it was that a late voice change, a visiting diva, and an extraordinary talent combined to bring Shenyang to New York. He is now in his second year as a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and a student at the Juilliard Opera Center. Next month, he makes his debut as Masetto in Don Giovanni. On March 20, 2009 (his 25th birthday), he was the soloist in the Julliard Alice Tully Vocal Arts Debut Recital. His lieder program was dedicated to the memory of Hans Hotter, whose centenary is this year. After the concert, Shenyang and his friends celebrated his birthday.
There were many striking aspects to this concert. It was an extremely ambitious and demanding program – for anyone, let alone a 25 year-old. This was a collaborative enterprise. Pianist, Vlad Iftinca, who is the Staff Music Coach for the Met’s Lindemann Program, was absolutely on the same wavelength as Shenyang. His playing could not have been more sensitive. Most important of all, Shenyang was in glorious voice – beautiful in tone, rich in coloration and powerful with apparently minimal effort. His technique was stunning. His intonation was spot on, his phrasing superb and his dynamic range carefully controlled for optimum dramatic effect. His voice illuminated every nuance of the text. He turned each song into a mini-music drama. And he was part of the drama – not outside it; his face, his gestures and even his body were all expressive. Always in control, he, nonetheless, seemed to be absorbed in and by the music.
The songs he chose covered a wide psychological range – from the naïve and folk-like Sonntag, in which a besotted young man looked forward to his next meeting with his sweetheart, to three songs, each a dramatic as well as musical tour de force. The Erlkönig was not Schubert’s familiar setting but Lowe’s less familiar one. Shenyang delineated four characters – the narrator, the father taking his sick child to the doctor, the increasingly frightened child, and the insidious and threatening Erlkönig whose charmed entreaties yielded to force and then to death for the boy. I have never heard a more compelling performance of Wolf’s Der Feuerreiter, a song based on a folk tale about a man with an uncanny ability to detect fires. The song ends with his death in a burning mill.
For me, the highlight of the program was Shenyang’s performance of Schubert’s Der Zwerg. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in his lovely book on Schubert’s songs, wrote that most of the poem by Matthäus von Collin describes events before the song begins, so conveying the full force of the drama presents an especially difficult challenge for a singer. In the words to the song itself, dwarf and queen go out in a boat and the dwarf, with the queen’s consent, strangles her with a red silk cord. Later, the upturned smashed boat is found but there is no trace of either of its occupants. The red silk cord is washed up on the cliffs. Behind this strange tale is a story of an arranged marriage and thwarted love. Shenyang evoked both characters with chilling effect. The queen spoke softly with gentleness and vulnerability. The dwarf’s depiction plumbed the deepest darkness of Shenyang’s voice. We heard sarcasm, pain, jealousy, desire and finally exactly what Fischer-Dieskau said was called for at the end, a kind of numbness.
I am sure that Shenyang will never forget this birthday. And neither will anyone privileged to be in the audience for his splendid debut.
Arlene Judith Klotzko