Concert Review: 4.27 男高音湯發凱獨唱會

Tenor vocal recital
In case you didn’t know, Austrians are intense people…

In my write-ups on concerts, I do my best to address the concert and not the pieces themselves, but that’s hard to do in some ways, especially when you’re not super familiar with said pieces.
In any case, last year, I went to see Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder performed by our very fine National Symphony Orchestra. As you dedicated readers will know, it demands some serious forces, and one of those is a tenor. The tenor’s performance (both musically and… acting-ly? dramatically?) was excellent, and I actually ended up making a note of both him and the mezzo-soprano of the evening (who happened to be featured in the recent performance of Mahler 3 under Maestro Inbal where she was, again, outstanding).
I ended up making contact with the performer, and a few months down the road, in the program for April, I saw a familiar name. Well, three familiar names. The first two were ‘Schubert’ and ‘Mahler’, the latter being the one that attracted my interest most readily, but also the Chinese name. It was the aforementioned tenor, and we did end up talking about the recital. I took a few hours off of work to attend, and it fits quite nicely into the end of our three-week teeny Germanic series that began with Beethoven and will terminate with Mahler. So now we have a review of pieces by both of these composers. First is Schubert’s Schwanengesang, followed by Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
I went into the concert with a few thoughts.

  1. I have never attended a vocal recital of any kind. I’ve been to concerts featuring vocal soloists (not the least of which are Gurrelieder and Mahler 3), as well as some that featured a vocalist of some kind with an orchestra, but never just a vocalist and a piano.
  2. I’ve never listened to Schwanengesang.
  3. I can’t wait to hear Mahler’s songs live. I’m quite familiar with the symphonies (especially the Wunderhorn symphonies) so it will be nice to hear them in their original forms.
The performance was downstairs in the recital hall, not upstairs in the big giant concert hall (although for reasons I will talk about later, one could be excused for thinking upstairs would be a more
suitable venue. The recital hall is obviously more intimate: it’s small, all one level (auditorium seating) and decorated in beautiful hardwoods. It was a beautiful setup for the evening, cozy and close-up.
I’d bought tickets to about eight other shows since I purchased the ticket for this event, so I’d forgotten entirely where I was sitting. Turns out I had quite a good seat: fifth row, just stage right of center.
People file in, lights dim, crowd settles down, blah blah. Performers walk out, settle in, and the performance begins.
I won’t get into the nitty gritty of each song in each of the works, but there were a few things that did come to mind as the Schubert piece began. Perhaps oddly, what struck me the most was the gorgeous piano writing for the cycle. The focus is obviously on our dear tenor, but I have lately fallen in love with Schubert’s writing for piano, and he does not disappoint here. It’s very much a part of the work in a way that somehow contrasts with the Mahler piece, but we’ll get there.
I should probably mention here that I’m not a fan of facial expressions in my classical music. While some of those famous dramatic pianist who lean way back or make dramatic facial expressions might be fantastic musicians, I can’t stand to watch them. I will put YouTube on in the background if I want to listen to the performance, but I often can’t watch them. That being said, some expression and emotion and life are required by a performer in this situation, so I totally understand the swaying or hand gestures or facial expression; it’s just that it’s in a medium I am not very used to. And we’ll get to that more later.
Aside from Schubert’s splendid musicality, I must add that our tenor, from the get-go, seemed super confident in his performance. There wasn’t any hesitation or unfamiliarity, there were no signs of a struggle. There was contrast, delight, pleasantness, pensiveness, despair, but never in measures too great. Schubert was already at the end of his life, by this point, only a few months away from his final day, so to hear the (likely quite similarly aged) tenor performing these songs gave me pause… to think that someone of his age (an age I am rapidly approaching) was at the very end of his career, while the person on stage is, relatively speaking, in the early stages of his, added an interesting (and quite somber) layer to the evening.
There were times when the emotion (i.e. the volume) reached such a peak that I thought something in the hall might rattle loose. He would have easily filled the concert hall with those pipes, but it brought the opposite extreme to those moments where he was barely audible.
Another thought I had very early in the evening: I should really try to learn German. For as much as I enjoy music by Austrians and Germans, it could prove useful. I also found it strange to realize that my Chinese is far better than my German. It’s the case for very practical and obvious reasons, but for a language so closely related to my mother tongue, I’m awful at it relative to another far more removed tongue. I had this realization when following along in the text.
As with the rest of Schubert’s music, what touches me deeply about much of his style is its delicate restraint and understatement. This work contains arguably some of the very last things he ever completed and would be some of his most mature work. I also haven’t heard anyone else every perform this anywhere, live or otherwise, so I can’t compare, but the whole experience was quite… personal. Schubert’s emotion and drama and pain and despair expressed from what felt at times like an arm’s reach away. The eye contact was also pretty impressive (and effective). These are the things that are going through my head as I listen to what I viewed as the last words of a very young man. That being said, it is understandable that they would be more raw, intense, and directly emotional than his earlier work, and that they were. I must also say that while my comments about this piece seem more about the piece than its performance, I would argue that it is only a convincing, engaging performance of such a work that would evoke such thoughts. Having never heard the cycle before, I was touched, and it was a very confident performance.
The final lines of Die Taubenpost were sung and applause followed closely behind. After the first (or second) exit and reappearance, the audience, perhaps needing a break of their own, was ready for lights to dim and did not continue their applause, but our performers returned, the wonderful pianist and our main character of the evening, for another bow before the intermission.
The second half was beginning and I was very excited for Mahler.
There was a new pianist on stage for the Mahler. I realized at this point that the Schubert pianist played so delightfully, so pleasantly that it was almost unnoticeable, almost like when the weather is so perfect that you aren’t even consciously aware of the weather. It’s just perfect. I had that thought.
Mahler, though, is a symphonist, and this was the first time I’d heard anything of his on the piano. Again, I’ll try not to address the piece itself, but suffice it to say it is noticeably more modern than the Schubert, even though I do often think of these two composers as having some deep connection. Mahler is more outlandish, more brazen, more openly emotional. There’s the braying of a donkey, the sounds of birds, and more. While Mahler’s range of emotion is similar to that of Schubert’s (the contrast between bliss, simple pleasure, and deep despair), it’s also far more extreme, and in all of these ways, the performer must adapt. Mahler has never been just ‘in an okay mood.’ So at least from my perspective, it demands much more from the performer, not only musically, but dramatically (is there a better word for the acting part of this?) And Kai nailed it. He almost seemed more at home with something a little more lively, something you could really sink your teeth into. It was intense and engaging, and he performed it that way. Bravo.
There were, however, a few things that struck me. First, our soloist is not a native German speaker, and had I not had the text in my lap, I obviously wouldn’t have noticed, but memorizing two hours of text in a language very different from your own obviously presents its own challenges.
Musically, in works that showed up in Mahler’s early symphonies, especially Es sungen drei Engel süßen Gesang and Urlicht (from the second symphony I love so much) (Ablösung im Sommer appears in the third symphony, but in melody alone, no voice), I am quite used to the angelic voice of a soprano or mezzo-soprano (or a whole chorus of them, as the case may be). Urlicht struck me as a challenge for a tenor, because, for one, there are some quite high passages, but all of that aside, it still nearly brought me to tears.
I want this not to be a commentary on these pieces as much as the performance of them, but it’s hard to separate the two when they create such a captivating concert. It was a heavy program, no doubt, and I would guess these two works (or any two works like these) are rarely performed together, but there was a certain beauty to it (that may or may not have been intentional).
Schubert was 31 years (nine months, 19 days) old when he died. Relatively speaking, Mahler was old, but still died quite young, at only 51. Both were incredibly talented lyricists, Austrian, loved nature, the human voice, and attained only some degree of fame and success in their lifetimes. They both also straddled eras: Schubert the Classical and Romantic, Mahler the 19th and 20th centuries. The program not only provided an incredibly convincing performance of very rich, powerful music, but gave a lot of food for thought as a compare-and-contrast exercise.
All of that aside, the success of the evening lies not just in Schubert or in Mahler, but in a compelling performance by the focus of the evening: the vocalist. He had a commanding presence on stage, one that drew your eye to him and made you want to focus less on ‘following along’ in the text and just enjoy the music. It was thoroughly enjoyable, both musically and historically.
A soloist isn’t just a musician sitting in an ensemble; he expresses his thoughts and emotions to an intimate crowd, and it takes a talented musician and personality to do justice to a story that an audience can understand (at least in this case) only musically. It was a performance that one felt privileged to attend, a rare opportunity. I was quite glad to have been in attendance.

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