Last night I attended the first concert of what may be the most ambitious concert series of the new season in New York City: an attempt to present in recital all of the solo songs by Franz Schubert, who wrote more than 600 of them during the first three decades of the 19th century. Two young New York City-based pianists, Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware, thought this up last spring, and have put it together in an amazingly short period of time. They have attracted enough volunteer singers to be able to map out an entire season of recitals, and raised enough money through kickstarter.com to cover the estimated expenses, so the launch took place last night at Central Presbyterian Church, Park Avenue at 64th Street. The church and use of the piano were donated as well. This is a labor of love for everyone.
Last night's excellent concert presented 19 songs, sung by Simone Easthope, a soprano, and Evan Hughes, a bass-baritone. Easthope, an Australian (as is pianist Glen), is a second-year graduate student at The Juilliard School. Hughes, an American (as is pianist Ware), is a member of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development program. Both singers are basically graduate students with a love for Schubert's songs who volunteered each to learn half a recital program, which they sang from memory. And both of them sang very well. Of course, there is an arc to a singer's career, and most come into their full maturity as artists after many more years of public performance than these singers have accumulated. But both of them, despite their junior status, have quite a bit of public performance under their belts already, and both did an excellent job of communicating the expressive joys and sorrows of Schubert's music.
Despite their youth, both Glen and Ware are already experienced collaborators in the art song repertory, and although there was occasionally a rough-and-ready quality to some of the accompaniments, this never detracted from the effect of the songs. The program, devised by the pianists, provided an interesting mix of familiar and unfamiliar Schubert, including — a real novelty — two songs in Italian on texts by Metastasio sung with great dramatic flare by Hughes. Indeed, if I were to pick one word to characterize Hughes' singing last night, it would be "dramatic," while I would characterize Easthope's singing as "lyrical." But she didn't stint on the drama in Erlkonig, and he didn't slight the lyricism of An die Musik. Both singers presented fine voices, well-controlled, and there was much to enjoy throughout the program, whether hearing old favorites or making new discoveries. There was certainly a great commitment by both singers to avoid generic singing and to emphasize the meaning of the texts.
This series promises to be full of discoveries. My other commitments made it impossible for me to attend today's recitals – an afternoon program of songs to Goethe texts, and an evening presentation of the song cycle Die Schone Mullerin. Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware will play the piano for most of the concerts, but tonight the well-established Brian Zeger will collaborate with tenor William Ferguson in the song cycle.
All the concerts are free, with no advance ticketing and with open seating. Central Presbyterian Church, Park & 64th, provides a comfortable space (cushions on the wooden pews) with a rich acoustic that does not get in the way of projecting text clearly, although the sound is loud enough that singers and pianists could well reduce their volume a bit. Hughes, who has a really, really big operatic voice, seemed to me much too loud in his first few songs, but I had a sense that he was adjusting to the space, whether consciously or subconsciously, and hit a happy volume level by the time he got to the Italian songs. The pianists could use just a little more restraint, but they will adjust to the space as they play more recitals, I'm sure. With the rotating cast of singers over the course of the season, there will be lots of "adjusting" to the space. I hope they have sufficient opportunity to rehearse in the space, although it is difficult for performers to judge these things by rehearsing in an empty room and then performing with lots of bodies in the pews to soak up sound, and it is perhaps even more difficult for the pianists to sense how loudly they are projecting out into the space.
What makes this series very special, of course, is that everybody involved is a volunteer, doing it for the love of them music and the excitement of taking on the challenge of doing something that is perhaps unprecedented. This is probably one of the greatest bodies of vocal music ever written, and the opportunity to hear beyond the "standards" to the less frequently performed — but generally no less worth hearing — songs is a big attraction.
Anybody who enjoys Schubert's songs should treasure the experience and take advantage of the opportunity. The full schedule can be found at http://www.schubertandco.org. They haven't yet assigned all the singers to specific programs, but the dates and locations (I think almost if not all at Central Presbyterian) are set. Mark your calendar and enjoy the feast.