Blythe Spirit

February 14, 2008

z_blythe.jpg The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has launched an admirable new sally into “American Voices,” chamber music throughout United States history. As doesn’t always happen in such series, full attention is being paid to the human voice as a chamber medium.

As part of this Winter Festival, one of the truly distinguished singers of the moment, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, was announced to give a master class on American art songs, and a happy few of us filled the Rose Studio on Valentine’s Day. Apart from the context-providing exception of Stephen Foster, all the compositions were from living American composers: Bruce Adolphe, William Bolcom, Lowell Liebermann, Ned Rorem, and Stephen Sondheim.

Now, many of us may not think of Stephanie Blythe’s voice as the epitome of a chamber instrument, so renowned is she for her command of the largest stages that the opera world affords. (And it is true that, in the few phrases that she demonstrated, the room did seem to shake a bit, especially when she sang in her exquisite pianissimo, but that was a matter of rare quality, not amplitude.) On the other hand, those who can be forgiven for hearing her in Giulio Cesare and thinking of her as a Handel specialist or in Die Walküre and feeling that she gets Wagner better than anybody should not be surprised to learn that she can adapt to other styles as well. Infinitely, it seems.

I had known that she at least used to be able to “tone it down,” since I had heard her Lincoln Center début recital back in the ’90s in the acoustically-ungrateful Walter Reade Theater. But many a diva forgets her roots as a songstress. Not this one. And how gratifying to see that she is not only a brilliant interpreter but has the insight and vocabulary to communicate musical truths with words. (Once, in tripping over a word, she quipped, “You’d never believe I was an English major, would you?” Well, yes, we would. Not least because of her allusions to out-of-the-way literature like Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover.”)

The singers who sat at her feet, some of whom came with the Marilyn Horne Foundation seal of approval, were all at a remarkably high level. So we had none of the uncomfortable feeling that often attends these events, in which the master tries hard not to say about the pupil what we know is in the master’s mind. But, in every case, Ms. Blythe was able to zero in on the very thing that would illuminate the song — sometimes including some refinement or other for the piano part.

She usually knew the song at hand well enough not to need the score (dilating appreciatively, for example, on Bolcolm’s chilling “Black Max”) but was equally magisterial as she focused on the essential qualities of a song that was new to her (as in a fine thick-harmonied example by Liebermann).

We are lucky to have among us an artist who is as musically eloquent and verbally sensitive as this woman, and it somehow seems urgent that she continue to do master classes, however crowded her schedule is by appearance on the world’s stages — appearances we also would be loathe to see decrease in favor of even such enlightening séances as this one.

Stephanie Blythe’s rôle in the CMA Winter Festival–American Voices: 1750–2008 continues through February 24.

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