Podles more than lives up to her billing

MUSIC

Contralto's singing full of nuance, flair

October 19, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The classical music world is as prone to hype as the pop side. Many's the performer praised so extravagantly by press agents, and then the media, that letdown is almost inevitable. But in the case of Ewa Podles, the Polish contralto who made her overdue Baltimore debut Sunday night for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, what you see in the ad blurbs is exactly what you get - a genuine phenomenon.

The singer's first notes emerged in such a visceral fashion that the theater's nothing-special acoustics suddenly seemed fabulously resonant.

By recital's end, Podles demonstrated all of the gifts that have drawn lavish praise during her career over the past two decades - the uncommon warmth, richness and sheer volume of the tone, whether exploring subterranean depths or stretching up to soprano-worthy heights; the ease and clarity of articulation, even in rapid-fire coloratura passages; the exceptional vividness of the phrasing, alert to every nuance in a text.

I particularly enjoyed the contralto's performance of a rarely programmed cantata by Rossini, Giovanna d'Arco, a soliloquy delivered by an alternately anxious and confident Joan of Arc on the eve of battle.

Early on, Podles sculpted a line about "the whisper of the wind" with wonderfully evocative power. The music's technically showy portions produced remarkable pyrotechnics that would be matched later during the concert's bring-down-the-house encore, "Cruda sorte" from Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri.

Podles regularly programs Chopin's Polish songs, which remain largely under-appreciated outside her country. Sunday's selection included mazurka-flavored items full of lovesick notions. In "The Handsome Lad," she offered a model of rhythmic flexibility as she charmingly acted out the words, as much with her eyes as with her voice, and masterfully brought "My Darling" to an ecstatic boil.

A group of Rachmaninoff songs, tailor-made to the singer's sensitive instincts, inspired compelling vocalism. The way she rose to the climactic peak of "In the Silence of the Night" was one example; the long, slow crescendo on the final note of "She is as Beautiful as Noon" was another. And Podles delivered the cries of "Spring is coming" in "Spring Streams" so exultantly that I wouldn't have been surprised to see tulips blooming outside.

There were telling touches of characterization throughout Brahms' eight "Gypsy Songs," particularly a boldly dashing "Brauner Bursche" and deeply soulful "Kommt dir manchmal."

I only wish Podles had an accompanist who could fully match that art. Ania Marchwinska got the job done neatly enough, even quite effectively in the Brahms items, but mostly failed to produce the variety of tone coloring and phrase-molding that made the singing so consistently, intensely riveting.

It would be impossible to overstate the value of the Shriver Hall Concert Series' commitment to making vocal recitals part of its mission. But topping the one by Ewa Podles is going to be a tough task.

Scaled-down Mahler

The 21st Century Consort offered one of the most ambitious programs of the season so far - and one of the most rewarding - Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park. This concert to benefit undergraduate scholarships at the University of Maryland School of Music was devoted to works inspired by ancient Chinese poetry.

The main item was Mahler's autumnal and profound Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony for voices and orchestra here presented in a chamber ensemble arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. There's no way to duplicate the sonic landscape of Mahler's original orchestration, but this reduction to 13 instrumentalists works surprisingly well and certainly matches the essentially intimate nature of the texts Mahler set so insightfully to music.

Conductor Kenneth Slowik is something of a champion of downsized Mahler. His recent recording with the Smithsonian Players of a chamber version of the composer's Symphony No. 4 is a gem. He put that music into a fresh light not just by means of the smaller forces, but a highly expressive approach to phrasing and tempo.

Slowik achieved much the same with Das Lied, leading a performance that unfolded organically and took on an inner glow that made the center's Gildenhorn Recital Hall seem even cozier than usual.

The listener was drawn unusually close to the very core of the music, nowhere more compellingly than in the final movement, Der Abschied. Solos by violinist Elisabeth Adkins, flutist Sara Stern and oboist Mark Hill, and the sounds made when pianist Lisa Emenheiser reached inside the piano to pluck gently at the strings, helped to give an extra, touching vulnerability to the words of loneliness and longing sung by mezzo Delores Ziegler.

Her beautifully controlled tone and responsiveness to the music yielded considerable rewards. So did tenor Randal Rushing's vivid solos.

The program also contained Another Dawn by UM composition professor Lawrence Moss, who set five poems from the Tang Dynasty for soprano and chamber ensemble. When Carmen Bathrop had to cancel due to illness, clarinetist Paul Cigan stepped in to play the vocal lines. This all-instrumental solution was not ideal, but provided a workable way to expose the music's atmospheric blend of Chinese and Western elements.

Three Chinese Folk Songs by James Fry, associate director of the UM School of Music, completed the program. Despite the title, an oboe is meant to be the singer, with a piano as accompanist. Hill and Emenheiser gave an elegant account of the score, which pleasantly evokes Eastern moods and styles.

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