By Bob Kingston
Why are there so few solo vocal recitals in Portland? It’s certainly not as if the Rose City is facing a shortage of outstanding singers, any one of whom could be enlisted to put on a compelling concert. Might it have something to do with the lack of institutional support for anyone not connected with a major performing organization? Is it the case that the return on investment for the musicians just isn’t enough to warrant the time and money needed to plan, advertise, and present what would in all likelihood be a one-off event? Or are we to believe that in an urban environment that supports opera, symphonic and chamber music, and a major piano series, there simply isn’t much of a market for this kind of repertoire? Whatever the reasons, it’s unfortunate, since the solo vocal recital can be one of the most rewarding kinds of musical experiences any music lover can have.
Luckily, a few enterprising musicians have decided to take things into their own hands. On Saturday afternoon (August 9), two musicians who are very active locally, alto Tuesday Rupp and tenor Stephen Marc Beaudoin showed that with hard work and the able assistance of some talented colleagues, it is possible to mount a highly engaging program of solo vocal music. Their concert at the Community Music Center of Portland, “Love: 4 Ways,” featured pieces by Brahms, two of Robert Schumann’s major song cycles, and selections by Kurt Weill; judging from the audience reaction afterwards, it was quite a success.
After starting with a trio of Brahms lieder, Rupp launched into the first Schumann work of the afternoon, Frauenliebe und –leben, written over a period of just two days in the summer of 1840. These eight pieces, with poems by Adalbert von Chamisso, trace, from a woman’s point of view, the joys and sorrows of love lived and love lost. We follow her as she sees her beloved for the very first time, through romance, wedded bliss, motherhood, and, finally, as she stands gazing at the body of her recently deceased husband. Rupp provided a nice amount of contrast between each number to suggest this trajectory, and she refrained from employing vocal mannerisms to express emotional extremes. She was most effective in those sections that focused on straightforward lyricism and depth of feeling. Nowhere was this more evident than in the fourth song of the cycle, “Du Ring an meinem Finger,” where her rich (but not heavy) middle and low registers and fine legato phrasing conveyed perfectly the sense of devotion outlined in the text. Pianist Janet Coleman was a very thoughtful and responsive partner throughout the performance, though there were times when, perhaps due to the hall’s live acoustics, the piano seemed a bit overpowering.
For Dichterliebe, also written in 1840, Schumann chose sixteen poems by the famed German romantic poet, Heinrich Heine, to tell the story of a young poet whose lover has betrayed him. With Heine, love is rarely, if ever, a partnership, nor is it ever a shared, fulfilling and mutually enriching experience; rather, he seems to suggest that love ultimately results in nothing more than isolation and alienation. It is the man who is endowed with a passionate heart, while the object of his desire and the cause of his ongoing grief and frustration is the distant, cruel, and unattainable beauty. Sarcasm and irony are part of Heine’s emotional toolkit, and this may have been one of the reasons Schumann—whose own criticism displays a marked preference for the witty and sardonic—was attracted repeatedly to his poetry.
Right from the beginning, Beaudoin seemed to sense the themes of isolation and alienation in Heine’s texts and Schumann’s music, and he utilized subtle facial and body gestures to draw these out in performance. The poet here is an outsider, a highly sensitive soul who has no doubt spent many sleepless hours wandering the streets and pondering the inscrutability of love. (In a handwritten note on the piece handed out before the concert, Beaudoin mentioned that he decided not to shave for the recital, as he felt the protagonist hadn’t the “presence of mind to keep up with appearances.”) At the same time, we are also witnessing someone who on some level remains open to the power of love, and who will most likely undergo these sorts of ordeals again in order to experience it.
Beaudoin was not afraid to modulate his voice to create dramatic effect. Every so often, he pulled the sound back almost to the point of inaudibility, turning what were already private moments into striking internal monologues. He also demonstrated that he could move in the opposite direction vocally by delivering top notes with just the right amount of ring to them. His pianist, Adam Whiting, carefully brought out the lean, almost impressionistic melodic and harmonic sound world of Schumann’s accompaniments, further adding to the stark and barren atmosphere implicit in these pieces.
The last portion of the concert was given over to Kurt Weill. It was fun to watch Rupp and Beaudoin cut loose on the selections from Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). Beaudoin injected just the right amount of pathos into his English-language rendition of “Salomonsong” (“Salomon’s Song,” though translated by Jeremy Sams as “Song of Socrates”), and the duet version of “My Ship” from Weill and Ira Gershwin’s 1941 Broadway show, Lady in the Dark, was a wonderful closer.
I enjoyed hearing Rupp, Beaudoin, and all of the musicians who participated on Saturday afternoon, in a program entirely of their own making, and I’m sure I’ll hear more from them in the future. Artists have long realized that drive and motivation are what get things done, and perhaps a concert like this is a worthwhile model to emulate. Portland has no shortage of first-rate singers, and it’s about time audiences had the chance to find that out for themselves.
Bob Kingston is a Portland-based musicologist who writes and lectures frequently about classical music.