Sunday, October 09, 2016

Marvelous mezzo Magdalena Kožená returns to Spivey Hall

Spivey Hall's Season 26 opened on September 25th (a bit earlier this year) with a brilliant performance by Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan in his Atlanta recital debut, which was a wonderful success. There is so much to admire in his playing, and so beautifully integrated: the sensitivity of his touch and articulation, his constant but unfussy attention to minute changes in color, texture and dynamics (especially among carefully calibrated levels of piano), his phrasing that breathes and seems entirely natural, the tremendous resources of power at his disposal, the lucidity of his interpretations, and the pervasive intelligence and imagination that inform his music-making. We look forward to his return! 

Next up in the Spivey Series -- making her third Spivey Hall appearance -- is the celebrated Czech mezzo-soprano MAGDALENA KOŽENÁ with pianist MALCOLM MARTINEAU this Saturday, October 15, at 7:30 PM.  

Ms. Kožená enjoys a phenomenal career as a recitalist, orchestral soloist, and opera star, performing in major venues, series, and festivals throughout Europe, Asia, North America, and beyond. "In everything she does," proclaims BBC Music Magazine, "Kožená marries gleaming beauty of tone and intensely musical phrasing with a minute care for the sound and meaning of the words."  

That's a sentence well worth re-reading, with praise especially important for a recitalist. An attractive sounding voice makes it gratifying to spend a full's evening's program with a singer -- but that alone is not enough. The most compelling vocal recitals are those given by singers who have a special relationship with words, and who are dedicated to employing all their artistic resources to making a song come alive in the ears, minds and hearts of the audience, by fully communicating the essence and character of each song. There is no substitute for intelligent fidelity to the text and a deep commitment to combining and conveying its expressive power with that of the music composed for it.

This evening I was proofing the program book for this recital, scrutinizing all the song texts (in several languages) and translations. In this carefully devised program, words and music unite to explore a vast scope of meaning and moods. The program opens with the Four Lieder, Op. 2 by Dvořák, enabling Ms. Kožená to engage her audience immediately in her native language. We also hear Fauré's Three Songs, Op. 23, including "Notre amour," perhaps the most familiar of the set. 

The rest of this far-reaching program (its majority) is sung in German: eight evocative songs by Hugo Wolf set to poetry of Eduard Mörike; Richard Strauss' Three Songs of Ophelia, inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet; and -- perhaps the evening's pièce de résistance -- cabaret songs from the Brettl-Lieder of Arnold Schoenberg, composed before WWII and his escape to California, and not published until 1975, well after his death.

Magdalena Kožená and her regular recital partner Malcolm Martineau have garnered kudos for their performances of these songs in Europe. One such review:

Kozena sang seven of them, and the risque Hugo Salus-setting The Contented Suitor and Hochstetter's Warning (to young ladies in the pursuit of a mate) were particular highlights, probably because she excels at a story-telling lyric. Her mature voice is a rich and powerful instrument and this was an opera star's song recital, brimful of tales, with Encounter and Forsaken Servant Girl telling choices in her selection from Hugo Wolf's Morike Songbook. Opening with Dvorak's "You fervent songs, sing out", and also finding space for the three Ophelia songs of Richard Strauss and a short trio in French by Gabriel Faure, it was a beautifully structured and paced programme. . . .[Malcolm Martineau] remains as expressive and sensitive a partner of singers as ever. Neither the Wolf sequence not the Schoenberg songs would have been the same without him, with much of the musical wit in the performance emanating from his fingers.

I can't wait to hear them; they would seem to showcase Ms. Kožená's wonders as a singing actress, appealing to her sense of theatricality -- which is another way of saying, her ability to connect strongly with listeners, something we always seek (and so often get!) from great singers here, who invariably appreciate how Spivey Hall's superb acoustics enhance the vitality and presence of their sound, creating a deliciously human and personal experience on both sides of the footlights. There's nothing quite like it.

Like Mr. Martineau (truly "an accompanist of genius" -- I concur with The Guardian), Ms. Kožená is a highly acclaimed recording artist, named Artist of the Year in 2004 by Gramophone.  At the end of my proofing/ editing, I reached up on the shelves above my desk (laden with CDs and books) for their 2008 Deutsche Grammophon release, Songs My Mother Taught Me, to hear once again the title track -- one of Dvořák's Gypsy Songs -- lovely, wistful, and touchingly melancholic. But as I kept listening (as a Kožená/Martineau CD inevitably induces me to do), my attention was arrested by the unexpected -- including a remarkably beautiful moment in one of Czech's composer Erwin Schulhoff's folk songs. (I'm a big fan of his Five Pieces for String Quartet.)

Such discoveries are among the many pleasures to expect when in the company of extraordinary artists who enrich our lives through their choices of music performed live at Spivey Hall -- music that matters, music that speaks to the soul, music that tells us who are are.

Excellent seats are available by calling the Box Office at (678) 466-4200, ext. 1, and speaking with one of my friendly Patron Services colleagues. This is a "Patrons ages 12 and up" concert; students and educators receive a 50% discount. You can also click here for program details, Music Notes (program notes with short embedded mp3 music examples to listen to), and a link to order tickets online.  There's also a free pre-concert talk at 6;30 PM by Clayton State's Director of Opera and Vocal Activities, Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller, sure to enlighten you and heighten your appreciation of the performance to follow. Also free parking, plus free intermission coffee/tea/soft drinks, thanks to the Spivey Hall Friends.


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