After the first of the five Schubert songs which began this recital, it was easy to see why Michael Kelly was Joy in Singing’s 2011 Award winner. In “Hoffnung” he exhibited all of the qualities one looks for during an evening of song – a strong and communicative stage presence, beauty of tone in all registers, clear diction and, most important for this reviewer, careful attention to expressing the meaning of the words. This latter skill was especially evident during the strophic songs, that is, songs in which Schubert sets each verse of a poem to the same music (“Drang in die Ferne,” “Frühlingsglaube,” and the aforementioned “Hoffnung.) Mr. Kelly’s subtle changes of tone color, volume and articulation made the meaning of each verse clear. During the fourth song, “Versunken,” pianist Jonathan Ware shone with his crystal-clear rapid scales. His subtle accompaniments were equally impressive during the other songs. It was during this fast fourth song that Mr. Kelly exhibited a slight flaw that I find present in many a baritone Lieder singer – it was often hard to tell the pitch of many of the loud fast notes, as they sounded more “barked” than sung. This sound is acceptable when it is used sparingly to express a word or a thought. But it happened too often for that to be the reason. This was, however, a tiny flaw in what was a beautifully sung program.
I always arrive at concerts early so that I can have time to decompress after the subway journey and then read the program notes before the concert begins. Upon reading the notes written by Mr. Kelly it became clear that his sexual orientation, his “journey to self-acceptance,” his coming out, his feelings of solidarity with others who have experienced what he has – all of these influenced his choice of the music for this concert. Whether it is appropriate to express such personal matters in the program notes of Joy in Singing’s 2011 Award Concert is not going to be part of my review. But I’m afraid I must comment about a statement Mr. Kelly made about Schubert – “I combed through nearly all of his over 600 songs to find poems that could express my journey to self-acceptance and eventually the ability to love in the way my heart was demanding.” All well and good, but it should be noted that the subjects of the poems set by Schubert are universal – love, loss and loneliness, for instance. Mr. Kelly continues – “In collecting these songs I often wondered if Schubert himself chose these poems for the reason I did.” To this reviewer, such speculation about the sexual orientation of a dead composer is prurient and irrelevant.
“Love Remained,” a setting by Ben Moore (b.1960) of three speeches by men active in the gay rights movement and a poem by Mr. Kelly followed. It was given an impassioned performance.
After the intermission we first heard six songs by American composers. Two of them, “Fur” and “George,” were from William Bolcom’s “Cabaret Songs.” As the name of the collection infers, they were in a very accessible pop-style, as was Kurt Weill’s “Schickelgruber.” By the way, I think any song about Hitler (he changed his name from Schickelgruber) is in very bad taste. Isn’t that the premise of Mel Brook’s “The Producers?” And Mr. Kelly’s program note (“I chose this song as a reminder that power is wielded over others based on how they are perceived more than how apt they are to use it.”) did not change my mind. All three of the light songs were sung with the same high level of musicianship and fine sense of style as were the evening’s more serious songs. Mr. Ware was again an equal partner in the performances. The evening’s one overtly homoerotic song was Ned Rorem’s setting of a selection from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The most moving performances in this set were of two slow songs, Ben Moore’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and Erich Korngold’s “Tomorrow.”
The concert concluded with Francis Poulenc’s “Tel Jour Telle Nuit,” settings of nine poems by the symbolist poet, Paul Eluard. After very long and fervent applause we heard two beautifully sung and beautifully played encores, both slow and expressive – Rachmaninoff’s “In the Silence of the Secret Land” and Samuel Barber’s “Oh Boundless, Boundless Night.”
- Harry Saltzman for New York Concert Review; New York, NY