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Lost Art?

Are vocal recitals an endangered species?
By William R. Braun
Illustrations by Ben Kirchner 

Lost Art hdl 119
Illustration by Ben Kirchner

MANY MUSIC-LOVERS who have spent the past twenty or so years attending lieder recitals in New York have lately had the same feeling—that presentations of lieder have diminished in recent seasons. Hard-core lieder devotees remember weekends with multiple recitals that couldn’t be missed, difficult choices between competing performances, and days of skipping out on the encores of a Kathleen Battle recital at Alice Tully Hall in order to get to a Jessye Norman recital at the Metropolitan Opera House. (Some people made a trifecta out of that last one, running across the Lincoln Center plaza after the Norman recital to get to a non-lieder event, a duo operatic concert with orchestra given by Marilyn Horne and Montserrat Caballé at Avery Fisher Hall, but others of us just weren’t built that tough.)

But is this sense of dwindling merely a perception, or is it reality? Some of New York’s major presenters gently sidestep the question, while tenor Nicholas Phan, who has the unique perspective of being both a tireless lieder recitalist and, for the past seven years, a producer of lieder recitals, does not. “Audiences have indeed dwindled,” he says. But there’s also a wider reality of how audience expectations about performance experiences have changed.

If a lieder recital is defined as the standard configuration of one solo singer and one pianist, the news is grim. New York’s Town Hall, with a history of important lieder performances that could fill a chapter on its own, has not been a player for some time. The 92nd Street Y, where the lieder fan Omus Hirshbein once presented programs that New Yorkers still talk about, is offering three vocal presentations this season. The closest to a lieder recital is the first half of one concert, with Matthias Goerne singing Schubert songs with instrumental accompaniment. The Y also offered “East West Street,” in which Laurent Naouri sang songs by Bach, Ravel and Rachmaninoff with narration. At Merkin Hall, the lone lieder presentation for the season is a Tuesday matinée recital in May.

Unquestionably, the most striking aspect of the 2018–19 season in New York is that there are no lieder performances at Lincoln Center, apart from Nikolay Borchev singing Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. But this development is bound up in a larger reconfiguration of the organization’s presentations. The summer of 2018 was the first without the Lincoln Center Festival since its inauguration in 1996, and some of the events that might once have been on offer under that umbrella have been subsumed into the White Light Festival (an annual autumn event first held in 2010) and the summer Mostly Mozart Festival. As recently as spring 2018, Lincoln Center offered a subscription series of three lieder recitals featuring Simon Keenlyside, Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley, and Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center, told opera news that the organization remains committed to lieder in both traditional and theatrical formats.

Indeed, it is the idea of staged lieder that makes an assessment of the depth of lieder in New York a matter of definition. Lieder can be anywhere you look for it. New Yorkers know that the Mark Morris Dance Group performs exclusively with live musical accompaniment. If you go to the Morris Love Song Waltzes, you will get your Brahms Liebeslieder delivered by four singers and two pianists. (And they will be good.) Schubert’s Winterreise seems to be staged in New York almost as often as it is sung. Presentations have included versions with video projections designed by William Kentridge (who did the Met’s Lulu and upcoming Wozzeck), sung by Matthias Goerne; with staging by Netia Jones, sung by Ian Bostridge not with piano accompaniment but to orchestrations by Hans Zender; and with choreography by Trisha Brown, fully danced by Simon Keenlyside and Brown’s company. 

This is not a recent development: the Brown–Keenlyside Winterreise was in 2002, and Moss presented a Winterreise sung by Padmore with interspersed Beckett texts recited by the actor Stephen Dillane in 2009. But it automatically presents a different experience from a standard performance of the cycle. It is taken for granted that the singer and the pianist have a distinct interpretation of a work as multilayered as Winterreise, and it can only be hoped that a director and designer will have specific reactions as well. The experience of a staged song cycle can be exhilarating and provocative if all of these people are working together, but sometimes they are not, and it is important to remember that some artists, such as Florian Boesch at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, can stand on a bare stage and conjure up just as many images without any actual staging. It could be argued, in fact, that this is the essence of lieder. But it may not be what audiences need at this moment. Phan, wearing his producer hat at the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, reminds heavy-duty lieder fans that “almost all of this repertoire is unfamiliar to audiences.” He argues that, to engage new listeners, “We need to experiment with the ways in which we deal with texts and translations,” in the larger sense of “programming, introducing visual elements—video projections, staging elements—employing supertitles, and having translations read from the stage.”

In any event, New Yorkers are lucky to have choices. Perhaps the most encouraging sign in the 2018–19 season is that Carnegie Hall is still offering three subscription series of song in its three different-sized halls. The large auditorium, which seats 2,800, programmed two events sure to cause mass hysteria, but which will not warm the hearts of dyed-in-the wool lieder fans: in October, Jonas Kaufmann sang a selection of operetta-related material with orchestral accompaniment, and Anna Netrebko, whose lieder performances have so far been noted more for their postponements than for their execution, was booked for a December appearance. (There were also autumn recitals in the large hall by Elı¯na Garancˇa and Juan Diego Flórez.) But there are three enticing events in the medium-sized venue Zankel Hall, seating 600, and the four presentations in Weill Hall, seating 268, include a lieder evening with Sabine Devieilhe, who, on the basis of recordings alone, deserves to be far better known in New York. By comparison, the three subscriptions at Carnegie in the 2007–08 season offered five concerts in the main hall (with Kiri Te Kanawa and Bryn Terfel acting as bookends) and five in Zankel. But there were only three in Weill Hall, with baritone Christian Gerhaher, not yet sitting at the pinnacle of art song, appearing in the small venue.

Weill Hall may in fact be New York’s best place to get to know Devieilhe, and this gets to the heart of the experience that causes lieder fans to attend several recitals in the same weekend. When voice, poetry, piano texture and compositional genius become inextricable, the result is something far greater than any of those (perfectly satisfying) elements on its own. But this is not possible in many venues; the art of lieder requires that listener and singer be in constant contact not just sonically but visually, and many of the venues in New York have auditoriums and stages too wide for the performer to take in the entire group of listeners at one time. (It must be noted that in the large auditorium at Carnegie, Joyce DiDonato has often succeeded in this feat.) New York has nothing quite like London’s Wigmore Hall, seating 545 listeners in an acoustic so fine that you could weep, and with a seating configuration where the singer can take in the audience all at once. And New York does not provide singers with an audience quite like the Wigmore audience, who in large measure give the impression of knowing the song repertoire at least as well as the performers do. I’ve felt this commitment from some listeners in New York, but I’ve never felt it from dozens upon dozens of people in the way I’ve felt it when Matthias Goerne sings Schubert at Wigmore Hall.

New York has taken a few things for granted for too long, and it has now found itself behind the curve in other ways. For a long time, it didn’t really seem to matter that the U.S. has not had anything like the BBC Radio 3 in Great Britain. Many of the Wigmore recitals are broadcast live, and every single concert of the eight-week festival of the BBC Proms, which offers lieder along with just about everything else, can be heard live as well. When I landed in London last August, my customs agent asked me if I would be going to the Proms that night. It wasn’t a random question; told that I was, she replied, “Many others are going too, sir.” She wasn’t getting off work early enough to go herself, but she would catch up later, because all of the BBC broadcasts remain available online for thirty days. 

It’s easy to develop an appreciation for lieder at home, with the texts available under a good lamp and, when the German runs along for three lines before getting to the main verb, the chance to look at a stanza all at once. You are then primed to go to a live performance and really communicate with the singer. Radio sound alone is enough to get you where you need to be, and this is far easier to produce (microphones can simply remain in place at a venue) than the livestream video to which presenters seem to aspire.

And lieder can be the most rewarding type of music in ways that are not immediately obvious. Phan offers some provocative insight into the necessity of lieder for both singers and the audiences who want to know them. “Without training singers to do recitals, how do we prepare them for the varying chapters of a lifetime career? What does a singer do when they are too old to be singing Cherubino and Susanna for the hundredth time, and their operatic work begins to thin out? Also, how does a singer vary the grueling pace of an operatic schedule—six weeks here, twelve weeks there—without taking too much time off and falling out of shape?”

But let us not forget the encouraging signs. Social media seem to be building some younger audiences, if my glance around the auditorium at recent recitals given by Jamie Barton at Glimmerglass and Zankel Hall is any guide. New York has a prestigious new venue in the Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory, which recently presented soprano-of-the-moment Barbara Hannigan in two different programs. The recital series, begun in 2013, is now overseen by Pierre Audi, who gained vast experience with singers in the opera productions he directed in Europe. And Barton and Phan are only two of a group of indefatigable American singers determined to keep lieder firmly in the picture. At a Library of Congress Q&A in 2017, Phan amiably admitted that lieder had a reputation as “the dustiest corner of the classical music world,” because technology has changed “the way we relate to music and listen to music and discover music.” But, he elaborated last September, “I don’t think this means that we need to abandon the art form entirely. I think it means quite the opposite—we need to deepen our commitment to it.” spacer 

William R. Braun  is a writer and pianist.

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