Chamber Music Milwaukee hosts rising star soprano
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.
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: