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Song Champion

Bass-baritone Gerald Finley has conquered the world's opera stages, but it was the song repertoire that first drew him in, and it still exerts a special appeal. FRED COHN talks with the bass-baritone about his repertory choices and his unique partnership with pianist Julius Drake.

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Photographed by Sim Canetty-Clarke at the Manhattan School of Music, New York City
Grooming by Affan Malik
© Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012
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Performing with accompanist Julius Drake at Alice Tully Hall, 2012
Photos by Richard Termine
© Richard Termine 2012
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© Richard Termine 2012

"A recital is a very human experience," Gerald Finley says. "People have come literally to spend time with you. I want to share the highs and lows and deliver something that's precious to me. It's like unwrapping a gift — you say, 'Here's the bow,  and here's the present.'"

The confidence Finley projects in recital stems from his finely honed ability to deliver that present. His voice itself is stunning — dark and rich in its lower reaches, yet capable of achieving a surprising degree of freedom on high. His technique allows him unforced access to his entire range, with tone that's consistently firm, smoothly emitted and well projected. His way with text is just as remarkable: he not only sends each word to the listener's ear intelligibly, but he has a great singer's aptitude for singing throughthe consonants, so that text and music become one integral package.

We are having coffee at a restaurant near Lincoln Center on a morning early in March, a few days after an Alice Tully Hall recital Finley performed with pianist Julius Drake, and in the midst of a Met run of Don Giovannis. The Ottawa-raised bass-baritone has grown a goatee and a pair of bad-boy sideburns for the role, but his manner is marked by a distinctly un-Giovanni-like — and quintessentially Canadian — forthrightness. He seems genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to talk about his recital work, a subject that is manifestly close to his heart.

Finley is, in fact, one of the busiest opera singers around. He has sung the big Mozart roles in most of the world's great houses. He has created roles for Mark-Anthony Turnage (Anna Nicole, The Silver Tassie), Tobias Picker (Fantastic Mr. Fox) and, most famously, John Adams, who wrote the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic for him; Finley took part in its San Francisco premiere and subsequent productions in Amsterdam, London, Chicago and at the Met. Recently he has been moving into heavier territory, singing Iago in concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and, last spring, Hans Sachs in Glyndebourne. As Golaud in a 2003 Bernard Haitink-led Boston Symphony Orchestra Pelléas, alongside Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Simon Keenlyside, he was an essential part of one of the most stunning nights of operatic music-making I've ever attended.

But his work in recital — almost exclusively with pianist Drake — is if anything an even more essential part of his own sense of himself as a performer and musician. "I grew into opera," he says, "but I was always firmly a song and concert singer." Finley notes that his lengthiest operatic assignment to date — the Glyndebourne Meistersinger — gave him a new perspective on the recital work that is so precious to him. "It's all about song," Finley says of the opera. "And that's what my whole life has been about — how do you sing the perfect song?"

Just minutes into the Tully Hall recital, soon after launching into Carl Loewe's strophic ballad "Die wandelnde Glocke," Finley stopped, explained that he'd switched verses, and asked Drake to start the song again. "The fact is, I know where I am in the story," he explains to me, reliving the moment. "I'm just talking about the wrong thing at the wrong time. In this very short song, it's really important that the elements line up."

What was extraordinary about the moment was Finley's sangfroid: if his heart rate quickened even a point, it wasn't apparent to the audience. If anything, the tiny gaffe had the paradoxical effect of demonstrating how grounded he was in the material and how thoroughly the recital stage constitutes his natural habitat.

Finley's focus on song began even before his voice changed. When he was an adolescent in Ottawa, his chorus master chose him to sing a solo — Roger Quilter's "Over the Mountains" — at a local music festival. Finley compares the experience to Billy Elliot's discovery of ballet. "I remember standing there onstage feeling absolutelyterrified and yet completely energized at the same time," he says. "And that's when it started." 

A few years later, when he was about to head off to England to study at London's Royal College of Music, his cousin, pianist Brian Finley, proposed a joint concert. "So I put together a recital of all the repertoire I had when I was nineteen," Finley says. "I sang [Vaughan Williams's] Songs of Travel and something from the Bach Magnificat. Two Papageno arias and a Sarastro aria. I learned Dichterliebe in about ten days. There exists a recording of it, but I haven't listened to it — ever. I hate to think how a nineteen-year-old presented it — it must have been horrible. But we put it together, it made sense, it had a journey, and it was powerful. And, wow, was that exciting! This is what I was absolutely meant to do."

The programs Finley and Drake now put together have a considerably less motley aspect. The first half of the Tully recital contained sets by Carl Loewe and Schubert, starting with Loewe's little-known "Erlkönig" and ending with Schubert's familiar setting of the same text. ("It's a nice palindrome, if you like," Drake tells me.) Taken together, the sequence made a cohesive statement, making us feel that the two musicians were offering a compelling, deeply personal survey in microcosm of early Romantic lied. 

The two men have a remarkably tight partnership. Most star recitalists sing with a handful of pianists, but Finley's allegiance to Drake constitutes a rare form of musical monogamy. (As a full-time accompanist, Drake collaborates with many of the world's leading singers, from Ian Bostridge to Joyce DiDonato.) The relationship stretches back more than two decades, to a time when both musicians were in their twenties.

It did not begin auspiciously. Finley had been engaged to appear with Drake and oboist Nicholas Daniel in one of their London series of "Menagerie" concerts. "I hope he won't mind me saying so, but it was completely chaotic," Finley says. "Of course busy musicians are busy, and often repertoire comes in very quietly. But in the rehearsals, it just seemed that things were being put together literally at the last minute. I was very traumatized by that first experience."

But the performance itself made both musicians start to see the potential of an ongoing collaboration. "We had funin the concert, and it was very relaxed as a result of that," Finley says. They soon started working together on recital programs, with Wolf figuring heavily in their repertoire. "Wolf is a real singer's/pianist's enjoyment," says Finley. "There is a sort of melodic line, then everything happens in a minute or two, so you get that real rush of romance. I became very aware of how passionate a musician [Drake] was — how he would wring out the essential climaxes, the essential feelingsof the songs. He was sensitive to the event of each song.

"Again, these concerts were put together in a very short time," Finley says. "But between the rehearsal and performance, something would happen. All the notes were there in rehearsal. But in performance, he would always dig deeper. He would make the climaxes that much more heartfelt. And he would throw the gauntlet to me, I felt. He'd pull, I'd push — I'd move, he'd follow, and encourage me as well. It felt like we were having a wonderful ride. I began to get the sense that — well, that we were a team, really." 

A few years into their collaboration, Drake asked to play with the piano lid up. Finley expressed a singer's inevitable trepidation that his voice would be overwhelmed by the sound. But if anything, the opposite has proved true. "He felt that if he could be heard, if he could sense the sound that was coming from the piano as it traveled into the hall, then he could adjust it, so that his playing would be intertwined with [my] delivery," Finley says. "He said, 'If I put the damper pedal down, listen to what the resonance is from the piano.' We did that, and it was very comforting to hear that there was a reinforcement of my sound coming from behind me. So I wasn't being challenged to sing loud, or to give the singing extra weight — it was only going to be helpful. It's a visceral experience when the sounds are united like that," Finley says. "The sound is literally emanating from the wholeness of us together."

Musicians can be thin-skinned creatures, but Finley and Drake have the ability to deal frankly with each other in rehearsal. "Gerry's got to convince me before he convinces the audience," Drake says. "Certainly I will be listening to his words. I'll tell him if I'm not quite convinced by the story. I need to sit at the piano and be convinced that what he's saying to me means something and has got a ring of truth to it.

"Sometimes I'll say, 'I think you need another color to bring that to life,'" Drake continues. "And likewise, he'll turn to me if I'm doing something that doesn't convince him — maybe it doesn't sound exciting enough, maybe it sounds too overwrought. I very much value what he thinks of the piano part. That's the great joy of it — that there's a mutual trust, a mutual respect. And that way we can both go onstage and say, 'This is our interpretation of the song.'"

The Finley–Drake partnership can be seen as an extended mutual exploration of the vast song repertoire. "I will always be on the lookout for things that will really suit Gerry," Drake says. "For instance, I recently came across a song I'd never played before, [Schubert's] 'Der blinde Knabe' — the blind boy. It's a gorgeous little song, very heartbreaking. It's got a story attached to it, and I just know Gerry will love it. It's not in the right key at the moment, but I'm sure it could work, and I'll guarantee that ninety-nine percent of the audience will never have heard it." 

The repertoire the two have accumulated over the years has been partly sustained by the ongoing series of recital discs they've recorded for the British boutique label Hyperion. The arrangement started in 2004 with an Ives collection; subsequent releases have included CDs devoted to Barber, Britten, Ravel and Schumann, along with a further Ives disc and a mixed program called "The Ballad Singer." The series has proved remarkably prestigious, garnering three Gramophone Awards. From a practical standpoint, it has provided the partners with a trunkful of songs they can use in their concert appearances. (The last set at the Tully Hall concert, including a heart-stopping "I Wonder as I Wander," was drawn from the Britten album.) Next year, Finley and Drake are scheduled to inscribe a Winterreise — a true show of faith on the part of the label, which already has a strong recording of the cycle, by Matthias Goerne and Graham Johnson, in its catalogue. 

Song Champion Finley HDl 712
© Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Finley estimates that while the average opera role contains just a little over a half-hour's worth of music, a recital demands that the singer deliver sixty to eighty minutes' worth of material — "a whole CD's worth." All that music — and all that text — must be committed to memory. Finley generally works off-book, occasionally breaking his own rule when doing a piece of new music with the composer in the audience. "If the composer is going to be there, how much do you want the music to be accurate, as opposed to sailing over and giving an impression, leaving aside a few inaccuracies?" he asks. "It's a tricky balance."

In recital, the absence of sheet music reinforces the directness and freshness of Finley's self-presentation. "I'm always disappointed as soon as anyone uses music," he says. "There are a lot of excuses for it — people can't memorize, Schubert songs have a lot of verses in them, the piece was written three weeks ago. But in opera we don't use music, and it's obvious why. There's that element of living the part, living in the moment. I would rather hear a singer do two songs from memory than ten songs from a book."

The song repertoire can present technical demands as daunting as any in the opera repertoire. Finley finds singing Schubert particularly challenging. "It's the whole idea of art concealing art," he says. "The relative simplicity, from the audience point of view, of something like 'An die musik' — to make it sound easy means that you've got to spend hours and hours and hours in your studio doing vocalises."

He points to Schubert's second setting of "An den mond," quietly singing its main theme in illustration. "That's a really beautiful simple tune, but it takes one from the lower middle of one's voice right up on over, so you've already got [a range of] more than an octave. There are three verses. You sing the first verse generously, the second verse maybe a little more quietly. The third verse is the most beautiful, intimate expression. It has to be a perfect exercise in three different dynamics, from warmth and generosity to your most perfectly placed pianissimo. If your technique ain't in shape, you haven't got a hope."

Finley relates the experience of seeing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, late in his career, giving a recital in London. The great German baritone's vocal resources were diminished, but his artistry was undimmed: "You got a sense of how poetry could be offered through these Schubertian lines. He got criticized sometimes for being too word-oriented. But if one really listens to these things, he does have a line — he does have the bel canto. He kind of tricked people into thinking they were just hearing words, which were gorgeous, but actually there was a singing line there the whole time."

The very greatest recitalists, Finley says, "make the audience relax and think, 'We're just experiencing the beauty of the words. There's not a voice there, not a performer trying to impress us — we're simply in the beauty of human communication.' Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey and Tom Krause and some of my esteemed colleagues today — that's what their gift is. They get themselves out of the way."

The chaotic state of today's classical-music business, Finley says, stacks the deck against recitals. "Agents aren't doing them, because they don't pay enough. It takes them much more work — it's a much lower-margin thing [than opera]. But they still do it, because I ask them to. And I love to do it. My ambition is to keep it in front of the younger singers and say, 'This is important. If you don't know how to sing songs, you'll never know how to sing.'" spacer 

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