Soprano Byung-Soon Lee
It has been evident for at least 20 years that the future of Western classical music lies largely in the Far East. This is confirmed by a glance at the players in symphony and opera orchestras in this country and Europe, by noting the names of world-famous performers such as Mitsuko Uchida, Seiji Ozawa and the members of the Chung family, who play violin, cello and piano; the spread of the Suzuki method of teaching the violin and other instruments; and the emergence of such composers as Bright Sheng and Toshiro Mayuzumi.
Much of the credit for this enlargement and enrichment of our musical heritage goes to organizations like the Korean Concert Society, which since 1980 has sponsored 23 debut recitals in the Washington area featuring young Korean musicians. This year's concert, Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, was given by soprano Byung-Soon Lee with sensitive piano accompaniment by Xak Bjerken, and it took the audience by storm.
Lee sounded at home in four languages, and her style was impeccable except for one small lapse that would bother only purists--she sang a long, exquisitely controlled, tonally enchanting and stylistically inappropriate crescendo at the beginning of Handel's "Care selve," which was composed before the crescendo came into use.
Otherwise, she caught the varied spirit in five songs of Schubert (though "Heidenroeslein" might have been taken a bit slower), mastered the exquisite and challenging subtleties of Debussy, distinguished nicely between the Brahms songs that are supposed to have a folk flavor and those that should have a salon atmosphere, and probed the passionate depths of Rachmaninoff.
Her vocal skills are many and varied, including a good sense of drama, but her primary strength is in coloratura--the purity, precision and agility of her upper register. This came through clearly in her first encore, "Je suis Titania," and even more in Handel's "Tornami a vagheggiar"--a daring choice for a young soprano and one in which she succeeded impressively. This challenging coloratura exercise was the bombshell with which Joan Sutherland made her first dazzling impression on the international scene some four decades ago, and no one who sings it can hope to avoid comparisons with her. Lee stood up well to this test, equal in agility and precise intonation, slightly less opulent in tone (though quite rich) and enormously better in her articulation of the Italian text. She seems headed for a significant career in opera.
Muzsikas at the Birchmere
"Authentic" is a loaded, even dangerous word, particularly when it is used to describe aspects of somebody else's culture. Yet I'm quite sure that Thursday evening's program at the Birchmere was as close to traditional Hungarian folk music as one can get--without doing fieldwork in that region. The brilliant featured ensemble was Muzsikas, a group of Budapest-based musicians who, for the past 25 years, have sought to learn and practice the instrumental, singing and dancing styles of their homeland in their original forms. Consummate artists, they have not only mastered a variety of homemade instruments and vocal techniques, but they imbue their performance with an attention to detail, immediacy and, especially, passion that is breathtaking to see and hear.
Their latest project, "The Bartok Album," is a tribute both to their ancestors and to Bela Bartok, the great Hungarian composer who spent his life seeking out villagers across his country and recording their art on a phonograph. Muzsikas's exploration of Bartok's work begins with samples of these crude but fascinating recordings, continues with their performance of pieces by Bartok based on these melodies and rhythms, and ends with their own interpretations of them.
One of many examples illuminated at the Birchmere was a melody from the region of Maramoros sung for Bartok in 1913 by two girls, complete with giggles at the close. Then Mihaly Sipos and Laszlo Porteleki launched into a bracing rendition of the composer's spare Duo No. 32. The piece de resistance came with the entire ensemble--including the renowned vocalist Mara Sebestyen and two bounding, bouncing dancers--performing their own whistling, whirling take on the original.
The combination of dueling strings, Sebestyen's gorgeously nasal chanting, Peter Eri's simultaneously droning and tootling on a huge wooden flute, and Daniel Hamar's spirited way with the gardon--which looks like a baby cello but is actually a percussion instrument--both seduced and informed in myriad pieces from this and other regions of Hungary.
Soprano Roberta Alexander
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," sang soprano Roberta Alexander at a climactic moment in her Vocal Arts Society recital Wednesday evening at La Maison Francaise. She sang it with intense personal involvement, a tone both sweet and plaintive, and a deep sensitivity to the power and meaning of the words.
There was a certain irony in her choice of this song. In fact, Alexander is anything but a motherless child. Her mother, who used to be a recital singer, could not attend the evening, but she was vividly present in spirit. For the second half of the program, Alexander sang American songs she had learned from her mother--music mostly by composers born around the turn of the century, written in styles now considered old-fashioned, nearly forgotten and perhaps ripe for revival. These songs are recorded on "Songs My Mother Taught Me," the latest of Alexander's many CDs on the Etcetera label.
The program began more conventionally, with lush French and German masterpieces from the late romantic era: Alban Berg's haunting "Seven Early Songs," sung in German, and three of Ernest Chausson's best-known songs. Alexander used the material to warm up for the mostly unfamiliar American music in her program's second half. And unlike many American and English singers who sound better-trained when they sing in foreign languages, her English came across much more clearly than her French and German, both in diction and in emotional impact.
This treatment was as welcome as it was unusual. Some of the songs may never get back into the recital mainstream, but they had a vivid life on Wednesday evening, and though they were uneven in quality, their straightforward, folk-song-influenced flavor was warmly welcomed by the audience. Some of them (Vittorio Giannini's "Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky!" for example) are small but authentic gems, but it took a singer with Alexander's skill and dedication to bring out their power.
David Triestram accompanied expertly.
Sufi Qawwali Music
The groups that perform Sufi qawwali music are called "parties," and the performance by Pakistan's Mehr Ali and Sher Ali and Ensemble Friday night outside the Freer Gallery of Art did have a festive atmosphere. The spirit being celebrated, however, was not earthly but divine. Although many qawwali songs are nominally about absent or unrequited love, their true subject is man's longing for God.
This music, however, is not merely plaintive. It is also communal and highly rhythmic and, at its ecstatic peak, capable of getting a few listeners up and dancing on the Freer's plaza on a chilly October night. Although most of the audience members simply listened, some followed the traditional ritual of showering the performers with money.
Sher Ali, the party's lead vocalist, sang the principal lyrics, which were derived from seven centuries of Sufi devotional poetry. His verses were answered by the higher-pitched solo singing of his brother Mehr and the call-and-response and unison singing of the other eight musicians. While two harmoniums provided the drone that underpins most Indo-Pakistani music, tabla player Ajmad Ali did an exemplary job of keeping and embroidering the beat. Still, much of the evening's music was made simply with trilling voices and clapping hands.