Michelle DeYoung combines mezzo heft with soaring soprano
By Peter Alexander July 20 at 1 a.m.
Last night (July 19) Jean-Marie Zeitouni returned to the Colorado Music Festival, conducting a concert that had the same verve and excitement that marked so many of his performances when he was the music director.
Joining Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra on the first half of the concert was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, this year’s SeiSolo artist-in-residence at CMF, who contributed a powerful soprano—going well above the usual mezzo range—to a performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Noted for a wide vocal range that opens the door to dramatic soprano roles as well as the deeper mezzo roles, DeYoung has earned a reputation as an outstanding Wagnerian singer. Onstage she has sung roles including Venus in Tannhäuser, Kundry in Parsifal and Brangäne in Tristan, among many others, and she often sings the heroic soprano excerpts including the Liebestod and Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Gotterdämmerung in concert.
Her performance of the Liebestod had a Wagnerian heft as well as shimmering high notes—in effect, a mezzo sound in the lower range and a bright soprano sound up high. She could always be heard, even the middle of a massive orchestral texture. It was a performance few could match.
Zeitouni drew carefully controlled phrases and carefully shaped surges from the orchestra in the Prelude. Apart from imperfectly blended wind sounds once or twice, this was a consistently first-rate performance.
After Wagner, Zeitouni turned and addressed “my beloved CMF audience,” adding a touching personal note to the evening. He introduced composer Timothy Collins, whose song cycle Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), written for DeYoung, received its world premiere next on the concert.
The vocal lines of Buch des Sängers fall squarely in DeYoung’s mezzo range, with only a few excursions into a higher, brighter range. The first song, “Loveliness,” is indeed as lovely as anything you will hear, with beautiful vocal lines cushioned in a warm blanket of orchestral sound.
That description could apply to most of the rest of the cycle, however. The orchestral sounds are consistently warm and flowing, almost always at a moderate tempo, with added sparkle from percussion and harp to provide highlights. It is all very pleasant, very welcoming to the audience, but greater variety of sound and tempo would command closer attention.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in Buch des Sängers, and DeYoung sang with a radiant conviction. This is music that audiences can embrace without difficulty. It is not hard to predict that other singers will want to take up this cycle, and that it will have many future performances.
The second half of the concert was devoted to an explosive and spectacular performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most brilliant orchestral showpiece, Scheherazade. This is a piece that can display the best of any orchestra, and the CMF orchestra did not disappoint.
Never afraid of dramatic gestures, Zeitouni started the performance with a powerful call to attention, reminding us that the story the music is going to tell comes from the Arabian Nights. “Now we begin!” the lower voices declaim. This was immediately followed by one of many violin solos representing Scheherazade herself, played with a beautifully sweet sound and expressive rhythmic freedom by concertmaster Calin Lupanu.
In fact, the score is filled with individual instrumental solos, and one of the pleasures of the performance was hearing so many individual members of the orchestra have the opportunity to shine. In addition to Lupanu, there were solos for cello, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp—did I miss anyone?—all played with relish and artistry. Every one was a joy to hear.
The final movement was taken at a breakneck pace, about as fast as some parts can be played. It was almost all clean and clear, in spite of the speed, bringing the concert to a rousing close. Played with gusto, such Romantic warhorses can be great fun, and this one certainly was.
Scheherazade will be repeated tonight (July 20) at 6:30 as part of a “Fresh Fridays’ program. Zeitouni will also conduct the CMF Chamber Orchestra on Saturday in a program of Ravel and Beethoven. Purchase tickets here.