Tom Strini

Chamber Music Milwaukee hosts rising star soprano

By - Feb 15th, 2011 12:05 am
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Susanna Phillips. Photo courtesy of IMG Artists.

Susanna Phillips’ big, warm soprano sound of Susanna Phillips filled the Bader Concert Hall at UWM’s Zelazo Center to the brim Monday evening. That’s not easy in this wide, chilly hall.

Phillips, fresh off a successful stint as Pamina in an uncommonly glamorous kid-oriented production of The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera, was the guest artist of Chamber Music Milwaukee. Quite a coup for the UWM series, directed by clarinetist Todd Levy and horn player Gregory Flint.

Phillips impressed with the big singing, but she sounded her best when she scaled back slightly and sat down next to guitarist Rene Izquierdo, for three Enrique Granados songs in Spanish. Phillips just dropped into Milwaukee for a few days of rehearsal and lost one of them to illness. But it sounded as if she and Izquierdo had worked together for years, so flawless and flexible were their readings. (Izquierdo and guitarist Elina Chekan preceded Phillips with Mario Castelnuovo’s tuneful and clever Sonata Canonica, from 1961. They made this highly virtuosic duet sound easy and graceful, which is the whole point.)

Phillips continued with Phillip Lasser’s song cycle, In Colors of Feeling, with pianist Yasuko Oura. Lasser wrote the cycle for Phillips in 2008, on poems by a relative of a close friend. The poet, Wynelle Ann Carson, died young of muscular dystrophy. The singer no doubt has strong feelings about these songs, and the effort of the emotions was palpable in her singing. The problem is that Lasser’s music, in extended tonal harmony and melodic idiom that resemble those of Carlisle Floyd, doesn’t really support those outsized emotions. Over four long songs, meaning and musical allusions should accumulate. The music should unfold in ways that help us hear it as a whole, in ways that illuminate what we’ve already heard. Lasser did not manage that; it’s all one thing after another, a string of unrelated anecdotes. The singer had to work too hard to sell the drama, because the drama in the music is lacking. When singers work too hard in this way, pitch becomes wayward and tone can turn harsh. Both happened intermittently during the cycle.

Phillips returned to her lovely comfort zone in Dream with Me, from Leonard Bernstein’s 1950 Peter Pan (no, it’s not the one you know, and had a very checkered history), and I Remember from Stephen Sondheim’s similarly obscure Evening Primrose. Neither song adds much to our understanding of either composer, but they give pleasure just the same. Flint played a beautiful horn obbligato with the Bernstein piece.

Levy took a spotlight turn, with Elena Abend at the piano, through Bernstein’s 1942 Clarinet Sonata. Bernstein gave much of it to free, rhetorical writing, which Levy and Abend played with a generous flexibility while maintaining just enough momentum. The very fast second theme in the second movement skitters along all jumpy and nervous with syncopations and jabbing accents, which Levy delivered with biting accuracy and burning energy.

Richard Walters, whom I knew only as a music writer for The Shepherd Express, arranged Gershwin’s A Foggy Day, Love Walked In and Our Love Is Here to Stay in tasty ways that gave both players spectacular virtuoso bits that somehow did not obscure the relatively simple songs. And that was Walters at the piano, too. As a Chamber Music Milwaukee Valentine Special, Walters wrote a love song. He set e.e. cummings’ I love you much (most beautiful darling) for Phillips, Levy and Oura. The free-flowing, through-composed melody fits cummings’ blank verse, is gloriously singable and embodies the tender sentiments of the poem. Clarinet and piano accompany with a world of nuanced, beguiling murmuring and gurgling. Beautiful.

By the way, UWM art students adorned the acoustical shell with reliefs cut from foam for this occasion. Pretty cool. Here is a little video about it:

0 thoughts on “Chamber Music Milwaukee hosts rising star soprano”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like a really interesting concert of music, I wish I’d been in Milwaukee to hear it!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for commenting, Katy. — Tom

  3. Anonymous says:

    wow.
    life isn’t fair
    missed it

  4. Anonymous says:

    Susanna Phillips was a special treat. One felt, as Midwesterners are wont to do, that her visit was an opportunity we did not deserve. She is the consummate singer – exhibiting a wonderful voice and a very flexible style. She is an enchanting actress who captured all hearts with her stage presence and enthusiasm.

    The set of poems that Lasser put to music are emotion laden, but call for a variety of responses. Phillips felt them deeply and conveyed the shifts in emotions – from grief, to defiance, to simple pleasures and to love. I’m less certain that such a mix of poetry required a coherent musical composition.

    Susanna Phillips’ voice is a confident and pure as I have heard. When she and clarinetist Tod Levy shared a note in Walters’ lovesong, the clarinet revealed the range of harmonic overtones we have come to expect (and prefer) from an instrument, but Phillips’ voice revealed a single clear note. Phillips could fill the hall with a rapid series of Spanish verses in a casual voice or soar above all accompaniment when reaching with little effort for notes well above high C.

    Phillips as actress matched the variety of music she sang – at times flirtatious, grieving, comic, pensive. When she and pianist Yasuko Oura completed the Lasser work, her face revealed a series of changing emotions while the piano repeated the verse and she – voiceless – responded, considered and resolved her perspective on the matter.

    Phillips’ musical range was evident as she closed with Broadway and jazz choices sung without the slightest clue that she is primarily an opera singer. Her Gershwin sounded light and spontaneously modulated. I would like to have heard more of her jazz interpretations.

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