Opera stars savor complexity of Schubert’s little songs

Written By By andrew patner For Sun-Times Media Posted: 06/13/2014, 06:26am
Array Soprano Susanna Phillips. | Ken Howard photo

This season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association has dealt with the city’s lack of a true downtown recital hall by limiting tickets for vocal recitals to certain parts of Orchestra Hall in an attempt to create greater intimacy and to divert attention from empty seats in a large space designed for orchestral concerts.

Sunday afternoon’s performers certainly had no challenge to fill the room acoustically; soprano Susanna Phillips and bass-baritone Eric Owens are two of the busiest American opera singers, and Daniel Gingrich and John Bruce Yeh are veteran members of and soloists with the CSO as acting principal horn and assistant principal clarinet, respectively. Pianist Myra Huang is such a gifted partner to singers that she can adapt to and conquer any setting. Collectively the players and singers held the main floor and box tier audience in an intimate embrace with an all-Schubert program.

Phillips, in her early 30s, and Owens, in his early 40s, are both of generations encouraged to balance opera with recital performance of non-opera lieder and song, and they clearly relish the challenge of works small in size but rich in beauty and complexity. This unusual group program had to be fit into their busy opera schedules — the five musicians appeared at the Gilmore Festival last week in Kalamazoo, and the singers and Huang are set to reprise their roles with different instrumental colleagues in Owens’ hometown of Philadelphia next winter.

Popular art songs by one of the creators and masters of the genre, making up the bulk of Phillips’ sets, were balanced by too rarely performed pieces, some of them quite dark and with unusual piano parts, in Owens’ portions. The singers framed the program with expanded pieces from the remarkable last year, 1828, of Schubert’s 31 years of life, Yeh joining Phillips to close out the program with the much-loved “The Shepherd on the Rock,” D. 965 and Gingrich opening the afternoon with Owens in “Auf dem Strom” (“On the River”), D. 943 (written for tenor but wholly possessed by Owens). Each matched and co-created the mood and style of his piece perfectly, Yeh jaunty and seductive, Gingrich mellow with a melancholic pull.

Owens, who has sung many times at Lyric Opera and with the CSO, is all about challenges, in repertoire and style; he’ll take up Wotan in Lyric’s forthcoming multi-year Ring Cycle of Wagner. Dark scenes and set pieces such as “Prometheus” (1819) and “Journey to Hades” and “Group from Tartarus” (both 1817) were chilling and captivating, “Hades” showing off the deep bass end of Owens’ rich and characterful voice. This and another 1817 setting of a dark text by Schubert’s friend Johann Mayrhofer (later a suicide), “On the Danube,” were special highlights, as was the medley of joy and yearning in “Ganymede” from that same early year.

In addition to “The Shepherd,” Phillips, a prominent alumna of Lyric’s Ryan Center program, chose the 1823 “Viola” (“Violet”) for a more substantive selection. At times it seemed that she took a little more time to scale down from operatic amplitude to delicate song communication, but so much of the appreciation of singers is connected to personal taste and I would not take anything away from the connection she and her clear tone and presentation established and held with the cheering audience. The 1823 “Du bist die Ruh” (“You Are Peace”) had Phillips and Huang weaving their two intricate parts together like a golden braid.

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