Lady of the hour: Soprano Alison Pearce, recitalist at Elon University on Tuesday, 10 March 2015 [Photo © by Ms. Pearce]
IN RECITAL: Music by Arne, Cilèa, Debussy, Händel, Ireland, Novello, Parry, Porter, Puccini, Purcell, Quilter, Richard Strauss, and Verdi—Alison Pearce, soprano, with Charles Hogan, piano [Whitley Auditorium, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina; Tuesday, 10 March 2015]
Few situations are more exasperating for the earnest lover of the Performing Arts than discerning among one’s own neighbors an indifference to the artistic endeavors that immeasurably enrich the community. Perhaps the sudden burst of vernal warmth that ushered in the new week in North Carolina kept the music-loving residents of Alamance County away from Elon University’s Whitley Auditorium on Tuesday evening, but the poor turnout for the wonderful recital by soprano Alison Pearce and pianist Charles Hogan was lamentable. Frankly, it was an affront to the dedication of these accomplished artists, but they were not distracted by it: the historic space resounded with an enthralling journey through two centuries of vocal music, one that seemed unusually personal and perceptive owing to the intimacy of the setting. The effect was like eavesdropping on musical friends performing solely for their own enjoyment. Their pleasure, however, was liberally shared with all who heard them. The recital was a magnificent gift to a community that, on this occasion, was not truly worthy of it.
An artist with career-long dedication to the arts of both Song and singing, Ms. Pearce brought to her performance experience in an exceptional array of musical styles, ranging from opera’s infancy in Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo to modern works. Her versatility was exhibited by the thoughtfully-ordered repertory of her recital. Opening with the delightful ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ from Thomas Arne's (1710 – 1778) incidental music for a 1740 production of Shakespeare's As You Like It at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, she shaped the melody with delicacy and lighthearted grace. Her singing of Cleopatra’s aria ‘V'adoro pupille’ from Georg Friedrich Händel's (1685 – 1759) Giulio Cesare was equally poised, her discreet ornamentation of the da capo enhancing rather than distorting the composer’s vocal line. The regal dignity of her phrasing of ‘Thy hand, Belinda’ introduced a deeply-felt but aptly restrained account of Dido’s celebrated lament from Henry Purcell’s (1659 – 1695) Dido and Aeneas, ‘When I am laid in earth.’ The emotive power of Ms. Pearce’s top Gs on the repetitions of ‘remember me’ were literally and figuratively effective: it is difficult to imagine the impact of those tones being forgotten by anyone who heard them. From the start, Mr. Hogan proved to be a confident collaborator, his stylistic adaptability ably matching that of his colleague.
The rôle of Lia in Claude Debussy’s (1862 – 1918) early—but later substantially-revised—dramatic cantata L'enfant prodigue was famously recorded by Jessye Norman, but it was the legacy of Régine Crespin that Ms. Pearce’s singing of the lament ‘L'année en vain chasse l'année’ evoked, her ascents to the climactic top As appropriately suggestive of the anguished mother’s longing for her son’s return. The histrionic power of the soprano’s singing was further revealed by her traversal of the title character’s ‘Io son l'umile ancella’ from Francesco Cilèa's (1866 – 1950) Adriana Lecouvreur. Her delivery of ‘Ecco, respiro, appena’ was eerily reminiscent of Magda Olivero, the composer’s ideal Adriana, but Ms. Pearce had even greater tonal resources to devote to the top G♯. Like Olivero’s, hers was—even in recital—a performance worthy of a denizen of the Comédie-Française. From the gossamer thread of the opening prayer she wove a silk-clad ‘Ave Maria’ from Giuseppe Verdi's (1813 – 1901) Otello: though more at ease at mezzo-forte than with quieter dynamics, which occasionally jeopardized her otherwise exemplary intonation, her characterization was unexpectedly vivid, the knell of death already in the voice. Ms. Pearce offered a performance of ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Giacomo Puccini's (1858 – 1924) Gianni Schicchi that was credible as a young girl’s heartfelt plea to her father rather than a prima donna’s jaunt through a lovely, hackneyed aria.
Supported by Mr. Hogan’s sensitive but red-blooded playing, Ms. Pearce brought to her Art Song selections a scintillating emotional palette conveyed by subtle management of tonal colors. It was a tremendous joy to hear ‘By the Sea’ from Roger Quilter’s (1877 – 1953) Opus 1 Four Songs of the Sea sung so affectionately—indeed, in the United States, to hear it sung at all. The gleaming, expertly-projected tone with which Ms. Pearce filled the melodic lines of John Ireland’s (1879 – 1962) ‘If there were dreams to sell’ and ‘Spring Sorrow’ revealed surprising nuances of the still-underappreciated composer’s elegant idiom. Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s (1848 – 1918) exuberant setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘My heart is like a singing bird’ was sung with compelling immediacy that heightened the Romantic sentiments of the text.
Singer and pianist disclosed special affinity for the Lieder of Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) with impeccably-phrased performances of three of his most renowned songs. The vein of quiet melancholy that pulses beneath the surface of ‘Allerseelen’ (Op. 10, No. 8) bled freely in Ms. Pearce’s profoundly moving singing, the melody caressed with aural velvet. One of the quartet of songs composed by Strauss in 1894 as a wedding gift for his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, ‘Morgen!’ (Op. 27, No. 4) sounded newly-minted as presented by Ms. Pearce and Mr. Hogan. The apex of the evening was their performance of ‘Zueignung’ (Op. 10, No. 1), in which Mr. Hogan’s rhapsodic playing provided Ms. Pearce with a deluge of sound on which to soar to the fortissimo top A. Virtually all of the great Strauss singers of the past century have sung and recorded ‘Allerseelen,’ ‘Morgen!’, and ‘Zueignung,’ and Ms. Pearce’s performances of them compared favorably with the best interpretations of Straussians past and present.
Paying homage to popular song of both the United States and her native Britain, Ms. Pearce gave an account of Cole Porter's (1891 – 1964) ‘In the Still of the Night’ from the 1937 film adaptation of Rosalie—in which setting it was sung by Nelson Eddy—that, in terms of response to the lyrics and sheer tonal allure, rivaled Della Reese’s unsurpassed 1955 recording of the song, complemented by an effervescent singing of ‘Waltz of my Heart’ from Ivor Novello’s (1893 – 1951) 1939 West End hit The Dancing Years. For their encore, Ms. Pearce and Mr. Hogan rolled up their sleeves and sculpted a genuinely funny performance—and it very much was a performance—of ‘Vodka’ from George Gershwin’s and Oscar Hanmerstein II’s 1925 Broadway musical Song of the Flame. The song’s first interpreter, Great White Way legend Dorothy MacKaye, could hardly have sung it more charmingly than Ms. Pearce.
In the past decade, North Carolina’s stature in the Performing Arts community has increased exponentially thanks to the efforts of enterprising individuals and institutions from Manteo to Murphy. Still, hearing a recital of the quality tendered by Alison Pearce and Charles Hogan in Whitley Auditorium is rare. For that matter, recitals of such high musical standards and communicative vigor are rare anywhere in the world. Transcending imperfect conditions, which included noisy obbligato from passing trains, a pair of prepared, percipient musicians did what true artists do—carried on and carried away their listeners on wings of song.
King of the Keyboard: Pianist Charles Hogan, recitalist at Elon University on Tuesday, 10 March 2015 [Photo © by Mr. Hogan]