The Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota, ever innovatively trying to bring us great music performed well, took a leap into the world of Kurt Weill — the German composer who wrote operas, musicals and American Lieder — this week at the Historic Asolo with a quartet of talented performers: soprano Stella Zambalis, baritone David McFerrin, pianist Joseph Holt and narrator/host (and artistic director of the series) Lee Dougherty Ross.
From “Threepenny Opera” and “One Touch of Venus” to “Street Scene” and “Lost in the Stars,” Weill gave the world a bitter, beautiful, sardonic, truthful look at life through the eyes of a disaffected, alienated musician who turned from his German homeland and put his angst into his songs. His wife, the legendary and formidable Lotte Lenya, became the Jenny in all his operas and songs, performing them with a growly gnarl-of-a-voice that brought chills to listeners as they sat enthralled. One close friend said, “That voice, Lenya — it’s one octave below laryngitis.”
Others have approached Weill from operatic backgrounds. Teresa Stratas, the great actress/soprano, released two spine-tingling recordings of Weill’s songs, and another great (but lesser known) soprano, Angelina Reaux, has a two-disc set of such honesty and beauty, it still sets my heart pounding.
Although it was wonderful hearing many of the Weill greats, and although Zambalis and McFerrin showed great vocal appeal, they missed the mark because of their approaches to this music.
McFerrin has a pleasing stage presence and a well-produced voice, but he was strongest in his first entrance, singing the well-known “Mack the Knife” in German. It had energy and bite. But, as soon as he switched to English, some of the bitterness left him, and he became just another good baritone singing Weill. Even in the Lieder-like “Dirge for Two Veterans,” the 1947 setting of the famous Whitman poem, there was a lack of oomph that, had it been present, would have sent McFerrin over the top.
Zambalis used her lush, beautiful sound well but often missed the point of her songs (“Surabaya Johnny,” “Je Ne T’aime Pas,” “What Good Would the Moon Be”) by either getting too operatic or pulling it in and trying to make herself sound like a pop singer. Using the music for much of her performance also took away from her direct communication with the audience.
Holt was able to strut his pianistic talents in a solo of “Speak Low,” and the more intricate underscorings of “My Ship” and “Westwind.” And Ross tied it all together with an engaging narrative, compiled by Steve Smith specifically for the event.
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