Musical Poetry, Under the Dome: Soprano Erin Morley

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux

Tri-Insitutional Noon Recital, Rockefeller University
17 February 2012

LIVING ON AND RAMBLING AROUND the East Side, I’d long been planning to attend the free Friday noon concert series at Rockefeller University’s singular, quirky, unæsthetic blue mushroom cap landmark, the geodesic Caspary Auditorium (Harrison & Abramovitz, 1957). Described in the American Institute of Architecture’s Guide to New York City as “the gloomy dome” which “once sparkled with blue [and yellow Italian] tile,” it’s quite nice inside, with snow-white circular ceiling/wall sections and a steep grade enabling clear views of the stage for everyone. Most important, the acoustics are excellent.

This Tri-Institutional (“Tri-I”) series is a joint production of New York Hospital / Cornell University Medical College, Hospital for Special Surgery; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; and Rockefeller University. The recital on 17 February 2012 featured Metropolitan Opera coloratura soprano Erin Morley, wearing a shimmering slate gown, accompanied by Met pianist Vlad Iftinca in a moving performance confirming that the human voice is indeed a superlative musical instrument.

Morley’s heart-rending rendition of Samuel Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night” was paired seamlessly with Iftinca’s subtle fingerboard-to-felt-on-harpstrings accompaniment.

The program notes included English translations of the pieces Morley sang, highly useful in understanding the pathos and passion she conveyed. The pieces themselves proceeded chronologically, beginning with Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice,” from Antigono; the remainder divided between Nineteenth Century vocal music by Schumann and Rossini and early-to-mid Twentieth Century ones by Poulenc, Barber and Rachmaninov. Themes ranged from the romantic bathos of “Berenice” to Schumann’s charming take on “The Sandman” children’s tale to other narrative themes of the pre-electronic age.

Ironically, it’s notable that Morley’s arresting number was Samuel Barber’s entirely modern “Sure on this Shining Night” (from Four Songs), with text by the entirely modern James Agee. Here, Morley’s heart-rending rendition was paired seamlessly with Iftinca’s subtle fingerboard-to-felt-on-harpstrings accompaniment. Morley brought heavy librettists on board: Goethe for Schumann’s “Liebeslied” (“Love Song”), Gerard Manley Hopkins for “A Nun Takes the Veil,” and William Butler Yeats for “The Secrets of the Old,” both from Four Songs. Rossini’s “La Danza” from Les soirées musicales was predictably lighthearted; the closing songs by Rachmaninov were anticlimactic after Barber’s lyric lays, and should perhaps have been transposed. Maybe perfection exacts the price of psychic exhaustion. The program was otherwise perfect solo fare, enabling Morley to execute a few runs, hit a requisite high note or two, and exhibit her emotive vocal palette.

An enthusiastic accompanist inarguably intensifies a live performance, and Iftinca’s gesticulations were persuasive. However, he played his part too loudly during the first half of the recital. Morley wasn’t amplified, but should’ve been, given that she doesn’t project to compete with an even half-open Steinway (on which she oughtn’t lean, unless to dramatically swoon) at close quarters. Barber’s piano dynamic finally enabled the pair to mesh perfectly – to coruscating effect. Iftinca’s moderne keyboard wash closing Rachmaninov’s “To Her” was likewise supernatural.

As one might expect at midday concerts, and classical music no matter what year, decade or century, the audience was geriatric. Old age, at least, isn’t wasted on the elderly. My speculative theory as to why this is is that somehow the human brain’s taste in music magically turns for the best upon arriving at, say, age 65 (making this correspondent only slightly precocious). Better late than never, and to be serenaded by Ms. Morley.

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