Wonder of Winston-Salem: Soprano Jill Gardner, Music Academy of North Carolina Guest Artist and recitalist at UNCG School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, 20 March 2015 [Photo © by Ms. Gardner]
IN RECITAL: Music by AMY MARCY CHENEY BEACH (1867 – 1944), WILLIAM BOLCOM (born 1938), CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918), and SIR ANDRÉ PREVIN (born 1929)—Jill Gardner, soprano, with Christy Wisuthseriwong, piano [The Music Academy of North Carolina – Recital Hall, UNCG School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, Greensboro, North Carolina; Friday, 20 March 2015]
How does one define an important artist? It is easy to avoid the issue by stating that an important artist is a creature in which an array of elusive qualities are combined in proportions and configurations that defy explication and replication. There is evident truth in this assertion, but how is success measured if there are no parameters within which to assess an artist’s endeavors? The designation of ‘artist’ is itself now a prize without a fight. Singers like Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas earned the distinction of being termed artists, but the term has become a description rather than an honor. In its truest essence, identification of an important artist is perhaps best characterized by an adaptation of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about the objectivity of obscenity: in the case of an important musical artist, one knows one when one hears one. On Friday evening, one was heard in the recital hall at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. Visiting Greensboro as a guest artist at the Music Academy of North Carolina, Winston-Salem native Jill Gardner took her audience back to a time when singers were merely singers until they deserved to be regarded as artists. Much as some naysayers persist in ignoring and denying it, there are important artists working among the charlatans, egotists, and fools today. Rarely, however, are great voice, interpretive intellect, and beauty of spirit blended in a single individual as compellingly as they are in Jill Gardner. By the second bar of her opening selection, it was obvious that this wonderful soprano is not merely a dulcet-toned vocalist. It is difficult and frankly unnecessary to dissect every trait that contributes to her artistic significance: pedantry and pedagogy aside, her singing speaks for itself.
At the piano, The Music Academy of North Carolina Master Teacher and Dean of Faculty Christy Wisuthseriwong proved a colleague worthy of Ms. Gardner—quite a feat! Whether sauntering through Impressionistic music or retracing the harmonic meanderings of more recent idioms, Dr. Wisuthseriwong journeyed with Ms. Gardner into the deepest spirit of each song. Her performance was remarkable for the absolute synchronicity with which she timed her phrasing with the singer’s. The ladies seemed to breathe in tandem, and their like-timed smiles and scowls indicated that their interpretations were not merely well-rehearsed but equally collaborative. In the opening set, Amy Beach’s Opus 44 Three Songs by Robert Browning, pianist and soprano gave inspired, inspiring performances of this unfathomably neglected composer’s music. ‘Ah, Love, But a Day!’ received a reading of nervous intensity, the text seeming to occur to Ms. Gardner as she sang, and the poignant sentiments of ‘I Send My Heart Up to Thee’ seemed almost too private for sharing even when the vocal line took the singer into her plush, platinum-clad upper register at mezzo forte. ‘The Year's at the Spring’ was sung with a generous outpouring of vernal freshness, Ms. Gardner’s emerald tones glowing in the warm light of Dr. Wisuthseriwong’s playing.
Observing the breadth of her connection with the music, it is hardly surprising to note that Claude Debussy’s Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire were the subject of Ms. Gardner’s Masters thesis. From the opening bars of ‘Le Balcon,’ she ventured without hesitation into Debussy’s individual sound world, tellingly employing the composer’s exploitation of vocal intervals to convey the emotional ebb and flow of the text. Her subito piano in ‘Harmonie du Soir’ was ravishing, and her command of dynamic contrasts was unerringly effective throughout the evening: nothing was manipulated or overemphasized to the detriment of composers’ intentions, but she utilized every pause and shift in volume as an expressive device. The finely-wrought interplay between voice and piano in ‘Le Jet d'Eau’ was elevated to an impassioned conversation, and the diaphanous utterances of ‘Recueillement’ were expressed with refinement and tone that shimmered as though bathed in moonlight. The bleak but strangely comforting aura of Baudelaire’s words in ‘La Mort des Amants’ blossomed in Ms. Gardner’s performance of the song, the sudden warmth of her voicing of the line ‘Nos deux cœurs seront deux vastes flambeaux’—‘Our two hearts will be two immense beacons’—igniting the meaning of the text and fully revealing the profundity of Debussy’s musical response to the poet’s singular vision.
Composed for Renée Fleming, Sir André Previn’s Three Emily Dickinson Songs found in Ms. Gardner an even more suitable interpreter, drawing from her performances of textual clarity and nuance. The starkness and unconventional rhyme schemes of Dickinson’s poetry make setting it to music a daunting task, but Previn’s success was confirmed by Ms. Gardner’s accounts of these songs. Supported with uncanny synergy by Dr. Wisuthseriwong, her singing of ‘As Imperceptibly as Grief’ had the sheen of Fleming’s vocalism at its best with none of the mannerisms. The sheer beauty of Ms. Gardner’s voice shone in ‘Will There Really Be a Morning,’ her voice soaring on the lines ‘Is it brought from famous countries / Of which I have never heard?’ The sincerity of the plea ‘But—please take a little girl’ and the dejection of the reply ‘He turned away!’ in ‘Good Morning Midnight’ were haunting, the voice reduced to a fragile but unbreakable silken thread.
Histrionically, the recital was dominated by Ms. Gardner’s emotionally raw performance of William Bolcom’s masterful 1978 song ‘Mary,’ a musical character study in miniature rivaled in Twentieth-Century music only by Schönberg’s Erwartung and Poulenc’s La voix humaine—both of which would be ideal repertory for Ms. Gardner. With far greater economy than his European counterparts, Bolcom crafted a three-dimensional portrait of a woman used and then discarded by society. Ms. Gardner brought true operatic intensity to her performance without overwhelming Bolcom’s subdued, folk-inspired vocal lines. The despair that she evinced in her delivery of the line ‘Proud Mary’s gone mad’ was harrowing, and her simple elocution of the concluding stanza was tremendously moving. A more perfect foil for the taxing ‘Mary’ than Bolcom’s brilliantly comedic ‘Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise’ could hardly be imagined. In her uproariously funny performance of it, Ms. Gardner conjured the archetypal small-town church society lady—the Hyacinth Bucket of the genteel American South.
Ms. Gardner was joined in her encore, ‘Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio’—the familiar Flower Duet—from Act Two of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, Chair of the Voice Faculty of The Music Academy of North Carolina and Ms. Gardner’s Suzuki in Piedmont Opera’s acclaimed 2014 production of the opera. The camaraderie that they forged during that production was renewed in their pantomimed return to Nagasaki in this recital. Ms. Foley Davis’s rich, opulent timbre and expert Italian diction complemented Ms. Gardner’s assured handling of Cio-Cio-San’s music, and they offered a performance of the duet that was far more rewarding than the typical obligatory recital encore.
In terms of repertory, singing, and pianism, two extraordinary collaborative musicians offered a genuinely engaging, illuminating recital. The songs of Beach, Bolcom, Previn, and even Debussy are heard in recitals by acclaimed singers far less often than they deserve to be. Even fewer are opportunities to hear them sung as authoritatively as they were in this performance. What too many of today’s singers seemingly fail to grasp is that, in service to the Art of Song, neither a beautiful voice nor an inquisitive spirit on its own can sustain a recital. The voice and the curiosity must work in tandem to discover new ways of guiding audiences along the scenic highways of musical adventure. This was evident in every moment of the expertly-accompanied, faultlessly-sung, and inventively-interpreted performances in this recital. How, then, might one define an important artist? Simply cite Jill Gardner as a model.
Scene of a great evening: the beautiful recital hall in the UNCG School of Music, Theatre, and Dance [Photo by the author]