So my fabulous sister, Erica, once again surprised me with Carnegie Hall tickets. The first time it was a total surprise. She asked me to meet her in front of Carnegie Hall for a concert and I had no time to see who was playing/singing/etc. When I arrived I saw the giant poster of the Fado queen, Mariza, whom I adore!
At one point in the concert, Mariza went to the edge of the stage with her guitarists, unplugged the sound system and sang without a mic explaining that Fado is usually an intimate experience done in a smaller hall. Well, small hall or Carnegie’s immenseness was no match for Mariza’s pure tone and resonance. I could feel the vibrations of her voice in the top balcony where I was seated. Franco Corelli once said that his teacher Lauri-Volpi was the only singer whose vibrations could be felt in the loggione (top balcony of an Italian theater where typically the poor people stand to listen). Then there was her soulful, vocal honesty that just went straight to the heart. The world stopped. At some point at the end of the concert, I properly lost control and yelled: “I love you” in Portuguese. A great singer moves an audience to forget itself and just enjoy the moment.
Mariza was the last singer who did that in my presence at a solo concert (Nina Stemme’s Salome last year was another unforgettable experience), and after lots of vocal concerts at Carnegie in between I was blighted…NO! Blythed.
From the first moment when she addressed the audience– and she and Warren Jones (perhaps the most playful collaborative pianist in the world) took turns reciting 12 poems of Emily Dickenson before singing the setting by the late James Legg, a very talented composer who died quite suddenly of an accident in 2000 at the young age of 38– it was clear that this was not going to be your average evening of “art songs”! The recitation (as promised by Ms. Blythe) was a concert unto itself. She should receive a Tony Award for the recitation alone. Her magnificent mezzo that I have heard only in the company of large orchestras, –first as an unforgettable Mignon with Opera Orchestra of New York a few years ago and then at the Met in the three Trittico roles and of course as Azucena and Frica– is superhuman in the company of a piano, even when the collaborative partner is the genius, Warren Jones.
It is not only the size of Stephanie Blythe’s voice that is so impressive, it is the directness of it, the honesty of it, the defiance of technical restrictions. And here is where I would like to discuss technique a little, although talking about technique is precisely what one should not do when experiencing Blythe. She takes you so far beyond that. Yet I am a voice teacher and there are things she does so wonderfully that need to be discussed. For now I will concentrate on the obvious:
Blythe has become a symbol for cross-over over the years, particularly due to her forays into Broadway musicals in concert and always doing American popular songs of a bygone golden era in her recitals.
Many years ago, before I could articulate exactly why, I felt that there was practically no phonation difference between a healthy belt and classical singing. The way I heard it when I listened to great pop singers, whether Judy Garland or Ethel Merman, it was a resonance choice. The singer basically follows speech resonance (First Formant Dominance for you voice science geeks) throughout the range, which necessitates the larynx to climb.
When the “core”(substance) of the voice is so well developed as in the case of Ms. Blythe, there is no chest or head register for the most part. There is simply flow phonation, with endless resonance choices. She was appropriately “classical” in the first half with the Legg settings and Barber’s celebrated Three Songs, Op. 10. The richness of the F2 resonance (what one could call head “resonance”) in the middle voice was no less than astonishing. It sounded like a full voice tenor and filled the hall just as much as great tenors I have heard there. The top of the voice was effortless as always. She deftly handled the lower passaggio denying such thoughts as “break”!
The second half of the concert was all popular from Buddy Desylva to Irving Berlin passing through Cole Porter and a few others. Here one could imagine Ethel Merman at her best, but to my ears it was more Judy Garland on steroids. Garland had a noble refinement about her sound even when she would let loose. Blythe, a classical singer, has the same refined richness but also a particularly “raw” disposition with such a fully developed mezzo-contralto lower and middle range. She used every color at her disposal and the evening became about words, music, expression, fun, communication, letting your hair down, pulling up a chair, lean over the balcony and experience a singer and pianist at the very top of their musical/theatrical possibilities.
Indeed “belting” if we want to call it that is not the most efficient way to use the resonance mechanism. singing F1 resonance through the middle, particularly for such a giant voice, does require greater breath strength and puts the folds under pressure in ways that F2 resonance in the middle does not. On some rare notes at the end of a demanding program, one can hear in the muscular passaggio a slight tendency to lose substance. Still not enough to take one’s mind away from the thrill of the moment.
Warren Jones is simply one of the most entertaining, musically versatile and polished pianist on this planet. And it does not hurt that I have been a fan of his since my young days as a singer. I used to travel far to hear the great Bass, Samuel Ramey in concert, whose vocal pyrotechnics were accompanied by Mr. Jones’ fiery and facile fingers at the piano. As a Ramey-groupie in those days, I often found my way backstage and carried a few conversations with the very friendly Mr. Jones who was usually available while my wide-eyed colleagues were pushing to get a glimpse of the star bass up close.
A number of years later, Mr. Jones accompanied Kiri Te Kanawa on a recital at the University of Florida where I had been teaching. When I noticed he was the pianist on duty, I called him in New York and asked if he would do a masterclass for my students there. He took the only few hours free of his scheduled and did a wonderful two-hours (it became almost three) for the wide-eyed students. The next morning, he called me very early and said he had asked Ms. Te Kanawa if she would allow the students and me to observe their dress rehearsal the morning of the concert and she agreed. Chairs were set up literally a few feet away on stage and we got to pick the order that they would go through the program. Perhaps we helped them have a run-through with an audience, but I know that my students will never forget the day they got to watch Kiri Te Kanawa work from five feet away. I certainly never will! Mr. Jones had played that particular recital, as he often does, from memory. An amazing feat for anyone who understands the dedication that such a preparation requires. He told me then that he likes to be free from looking at the score.
Last night, even though he had his scores on the piano, they were there merely as reference. The entire program was from the 20th and 21st century and so it makes sense that having scores there for reference is cautionary and wise. As always, he was an equal partner in every way, as effortless in his difficult passages as Ms. Blythe in hers. From my few experiences with him, I find this man to be a musical gem, whose musical seriousness is so perfectly balanced by his elegant and playful showmanship. He is musically generous in every way and not surprising since he is so generous to the young musicians he has impacted over the years. Ms. Blythe is one of those musicians who benefited from his mentorship.
I could write forever about this concert, but suffice it to say that I got to hear one of the greatest singers of any genre last night and a pianist I dream to work with someday.
Thank you Stephanie Blythe! Thank you Warren Jones! And thanks to my sister Erica for offering the irresistible tickets that forced me to postpone two students last night! I hope they will forgive me, but this was worth it!