Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 24, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist
Mary Wilson, a soprano who’s soloed from the Boston Baroque to the Hollywood Bowl, gave a recital in the home of Lee Dougherty Ross last week and proved why she’s in such demand. The concert, which also featured Dougherty Ross and Nancy Yost Olson as the collaborative pianists and Sarasota Orchestra violinist Margot Zarzycka, was presented as a prize that had been auctioned by Key Chorale and the Artist Series of Sarasota. And it was exactly what vocal chamber music — or any chamber music — should be: intimate, charming and beautifully done.
Sitting on everything from settees and couches to folding chairs and bar stools, the audience heard a wide range of music so well performed, the lack of programmatic theme just didn’t matter.
Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” from his “Mass,” is anything but simple. It needs a great vocal technique, beautiful voice and an ability to sing as if the music and words are being made up as the musicians go along. Wilson and Dougherty Ross aced it with a seemingly easy, jazzy inflection that set just the right mood for the afternoon.
Next on this eclectic menu of riches was the gorgeous “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
Yost Olson was the pianist for this work; Wilson and Zarzycka joined her. The sound from everyone was beautiful and compassionate, as Bach meant it to be, but the work was written for a mezzo, and, in the voice of a lyric soprano, no matter how good she may be, it lost the warmth and depth it needs.
It’s lovely to program a work because you love it, and the love certainly was shining through the performance. But, because of the lightness of Wilson’s voice, she (rightfully) needed to take the piece faster than it’s meant to be heard, and that meant the instruments simply didn’t match the weight of the words.
Just the opposite happened when Wilson and Yost Olson presented Schumann’s “Widmung,” one of the classics of the Lieder repertoire. It was absolute perfection, musically, vocally and emotionally. Elly Ameling couldn’t have done it better.
Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” althought Wilson and Yost Olson performed it beautifully, lacked an integrated interpretation, with the pianist sounding rather matter-of-fact and the soprano imbuing the music and words with the great understanding and drama that’s needed. This is easy to fix; talk about it, and settle on one version.
Midway through the program, the performers switched gears for instrumental chamber music: the exquisite “Meditation” from Massenet’s “Thais” and a fun, jazzy work by John Williams, “Por una Cabeza,” which was used in the film “Scent of a Woman.” Zarzycka has a very virtuosic, big, gutsy tone with technique to burn, and she put all her talents to good use in both pieces, always keeping in mind the style and energy of each work.
To end the afternoon, Wilson returned with Yost Olson for two French songs, the gloriously romantic “Ah, Chloris,” by Reynaldo Hahn, and “Apparition,” one of the songs from Debussy’s rarely performed “Chansons de Jeunesse.” One of the reasons that cycle is so seldom heard is that the songs are really hard to sing. The soprano nailed it. And, as if to say, “If you thought that was hard … ” she followed it by Mozart’s devilishly difficult concert aria, “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio,” which has not only coloratura that makes the “Queen of the Night” sound like a simple song, but leaps of way more than an octave that Mozart must of written with great glee, knowing sopranos for centuries to come would blanch at the thought of them. The result? Exquisite and dazzling.
Finally, the soprano — who is also a great speaker, charming and knows when to stop talking and start singing — tossed off Musetta’s aria from Puccini’s “La Boheme.” With Dougherty Ross back at the piano, the two simply won over the audience with their charisma and musical ability.
Look for Wilson, and, when you find her, get tickets. She’s terrific.