By Robert Croan
Lied is the German word for song (plural: Lieder). A Liederabend is an evening of German songs, usually the songs of the great 19th and early 20th-century composers – among them Beethoven, Schubert, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf.
Their songs were the popular music of their time, at first rooted in folksong but eventually expanding in scope to encompass sophisticated compositional techniques. The words, by poets such as Goethe, Heine, Von Gilm and Mörike, are as important as the music in a German Lied. Schubert in particular was known for presenting his songs in Liederabenden, and “Schubertiades” are still given today in his honor.
On Friday, Florida Grand Opera showcased four of its Studio Artists in a Liederabend at Fort Lauderdale’s lovely and commodious ArtServe Gallery [it will be repeated Wednesday in Coral Gables’ Steinway Piano Gallery], part of its Songfest series that this season is traversing Italian and French repertory as well. It was a delightful event, all the more valuable because classical vocal recitals are, sad to say, becoming something of a rarity – and more enjoyable for the welcome use of projected translations that allowed the listener to appreciate the feelings and emotions in real-time.
Art songs differ from opera arias in having piano rather than orchestral accompaniment, and being more personal and intimate in their expressive content. The keyboard accompaniments are as important as the vocal lines, conveying nuances not in the actual words, and here, pianist Gordon Schermer filled the bill with colorful sound and sympathetic togetherness with the vocalists at every moment.
In FGO’s Liederabend, each of the four young artists performed a set of songs by one of the above-named iconic composers. The event began with baritone Benjamin Dickerson singing Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), an early experiment in the song cycle, which connects several movements into a continuous narrative.
In this text by an amateur contemporary of Beethoven, Alois Isidor Jeitteles, the dejected lover sits on a hill, describing his feelings towards the faraway woman from whom he is now separated, ultimately achieving a note of optimism at the end. Dickerson gave a subdued reading, his sound muffled in the mid-to-low range, gaining brightness and projection in the final (livelier) pages.
In contrast, baritone Sean Galligan brought resonant tone and high theatrical flair to four songs from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin (The miller’s pretty daughter) and two from that composer’s collection (not a connected cycle) known as Schwanengesang (Swansong).
Every moment conveyed a sense that this Galligan loves to sing, and to share that joy with his audience. His exuberance and vitality were quite infectious, compensating for some roughness of line and minor glitches in his German pronunciation. He had the advantage of singing the most recognizable piece on the program, Schubert’s familiar “Serenade,” which he rendered appealingly, concluding his segment with a vigorous Aufenthalt (Road stop).
In seven Strauss songs, Dominick Corbacio displayed a pleasant tenor timbre, but seemed more concerned with the sound of his own voice (actually quite a nice sound), than in conveying the mood and meaning of the poetry, while his German vowels were distorted and diction filled with inaccuracies.
In a class all her own, performing six songs by Wolf, was soprano Jessica E. Jones. Polished in her vocal technique and physical demeanor, mature in her interpretive acumen, this singer took on the evening’s most challenging repertory.
Wolf is often described as a disciple of Wagner, but the older composer’s influence was in the delineation of the words, the integration of the vocal line into the accompaniment, and the chromaticism of his harmonic language – advanced and modern for the time (late 19th century). In other ways, his works are the opposite of Wagner’s. Whereas Wagner created monumental epics in which subtle details (though they exist) are enveloped in the larger picture, Wolf’s Lieder are exquisite complex miniatures, in which each syllable matters, and every nuance must match the verbal content.
Jones supplied all this in her renditions. With German diction that was idiomatic and intelligible, she seized the bittersweet irony of Goethe’s poem, “Die Bekehrte” (The convert). She toyed with our emotions in “Du denkst mit einem Fädchen” (You think you can hold me on a thread). She captured the adolescent petulance of two songs from Wolf’s so-called Italian Songbook (German translations of Italian folk poems); and at the very end, she conveyed pungently the incomparable morning afterglow that follows a night of lovemaking.
Her voice is beautifully produced, her silvery tone forwardly placed, her technique sufficient to allow her a seemingly endless palette of aural colors – guided by an observably high musical intellect. She’s elegant on stage as well: in all, a complete package for operatic success.