Liederabend at Juilliard with Lila Duffy, Michael McDermott and Eirin Rognerud

Attending a student recital at Juilliard is always a special treat: you get to witness enthusiastic young artists who are preposterously accomplished for their age explore new grounds and take chances in the nurturing environment of their home turf. Of course, the pressure is always “on” for a live performance, but these intimate recitals take place in a fairly relaxed atmosphere, like a trial run, and you can feel the supporting presence of the singers’ peers in the room. What better way is there to carefully hone their craft and their stage presence? And what better way for an audience to renew their appreciation of their Fach

Curated and coached with great care and attention to nuance by Brian Zeger, the artistic director of Juilliard’s vocal department, this recital, one in a series of presentations aptly titled Liederabend, had each of the three featured singers dig their heels into songs by one specific composer, giving them a chance to show depth rather than range. 

Soprano Lila Duffy , the first singer in the line-up, sang a selection of songs from Lili Boulanger’s astonishing song cycle, Clairières dans le Ciel, with lyrics Francis Jammes, whose romantic, pastoral themes meshed beautifully with the luxurious, somewhat eccentric lushness of Boulanger’s French impressionist style. Miss Duffy, dressed in a stately, dark purple, floor-length gown, has a mature and calm poise, and radiates warm energy with a bit of fire burning beneath the veneer. Her voice is rich and velvety, and she very effectively captured the intimately reflective spirit of Boulanger’s songs, putting all her dramatic emphasis into the focused sounds she created, with impeccable diction and some extraordinarily high, sustained notes that emanated with impressive ease from her body. Throughout her recital, she barely moved but for an occasional, understated hand gesture. The inner stillness she projected contrasted very well with Boulanger’s ebbing and flowing music, but sustaining this kind of energy for several numbers in a row is a challenge not only for a singer but for the audience as well. At times, it felt a bit as if Miss Duffy’s body was locked in a position. She could have allowed herself to dissolve it now and then: there is nothing wrong with allowing your body to relax in between numbers and take a deep breath. In fact, it helps the audience breathe with a performer – that is when the magic happens. The song selection ended with the devastating Demain fera un an, a resigned last outcry of a young, fragile and tortured soul that yearns for eternal release from an insufferable life, granted in the last seconds by the dissolving harmony of the piano that evokes a flickering candle being blown out, its plume of smoke slowly wafting upwards. It’s tragic that this extraordinary composer’s life was indeed snuffed out by tuberculosis at the tender age of only twenty-four but comforting to see her work brought to life by such a promising young singer.

 It’s a brave undertaking for anyone to tackle the German Lied repertoire of the likes of Robert Schumann or Franz Schubert: it takes years to grow into this very sophisticated repertoire that is demanding on an entirely different level than, say, songs that call for vocal fireworks. Tenor Michael McDermott’s interpretation of a selection of Schumann Lieder that included two titles from the iconic Dichterliebe conjured a young man who tries to overcome his shyness by forcefully projecting self-assurance even as he somewhat awkwardly confesses his torturous love pangs. It’s an interesting approach that arguably makes sense for a singer as young as Mr. McDermott, whose highly expressive eyebrows at times appeared like supertitles above his emotive face. They say that young age is wasted on the young, and it’s true that while the characters portrayed in these romantic songs tend to be young, the music and lyrics reveal a mature, meta perspective of their drama that needs to be lived up to – in due time. The best way to get there is to learn to trust the inherent power of both music and lyrics and practically let it do the work for you. With more experience, a singer like McDermott will figure out how to be poignant and specific in his performance while resisting any urges to emote.  But since less is more can only be achieved by chipping away, not by giving little to start with, I do not doubt that he is on the right path.

 Soprano Eirin Rognerud rounded up the short evening that clocked in at less than an hour. Clad in a floral print summer dress, she entered the stage with breezy confidence and insouciantly made a brief announcement about a change in the order of her program before diving swiftly into her Strauss repertoire.  It cleared the room for her – we got a pretty good impression of her engaging personality even before she sang her first note. I suspect it also helped her – it feels good to have the room in the palm of your hand even before you start singing – a neat trick performers should consider having up their sleeve. Miss Rognerud is a perfect match for the stylized hyper-feminine über-exaltation of the Strauss Lieder catalogue. Spunky, with a luminous voice that sounds like merry laughter and flashy eyes that twinkle with mirth, she represents that precocious young girl so cherished in German literature of the period– not yet tainted by Weltschmerz, tongue firmly in cheek, playfully teasing with childlike innocence yet quite conscious of her considerable girl power. The technical demands made on any singer to sing these Lieder are insane. Miss Rognerud delivers them like she was swinging her lithe body down a playground slide or frolicking on a swing. Fearless, puckish, basking in the moment of frivolous fun, and quite able to mock a serious suitor. She will make a fantastic Zerbinetta one day. Come to think of it, I would cast Lila Duffy alongside her as Ariadne.

 The Juilliard student recitals are a fantastic opportunity to see young singers before they are swallowed up by an industry that is permanently hungry for new talent, but it’s also a chance to see the future of a venerable tradition that continues to demand refinement and sophistication from artists and audiences alike. Although open to the public and generally free of charge, they are not as well attended as they should be. To me, they are among New York’s best kept secrets. The next Liederabend recitals this season are scheduled for November 21 and December 12.