Sarah Shafer, shining new soprano

We heard her first

Shafer's silvery voice recalled the young Benita Valente.
Shafer's silvery voice recalled the young Benita Valente.

As Philadelphia music lovers are gratefully aware, Curtis Institute routinely allows us to preview young artists who go on to international careers, enabling us locals to say we heard them first. The list, just in recent years, is quite astonishing, given the school's small enrollment: the pianists Lang Lang, Jonathan Biss and Yuja Wang; the New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert; the violinist Hilary Hahn; the tenor sensation Juan Diego FlÓ³res; and on and on.

It's harmless fun to try to guess who, among the current batch of active students, will rise to the top. Often, as in the case of the phenomenally gifted and extraordinarily charismatic pianist Yuja Wang, it seems obvious. I'd put the soprano Sarah Shafer in this category.

Shafer has been heard recently as an enchanting Pamina in the Curtis production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and even more recently in recital with pianist Richard Goode. In both cases I found little to fault as far as her vocal instrument is concerned. She sings with crisp diction, focused pitch and a penetrating and silvery timbre that recalls the young Benita Valente (who happens to be one of Shafer's mentors).

Grasping Schubert's snowflakes

But making it as a performing artist requires more than just technical chops. Shafer offers much more: the qualities that point to a major career.

In Friday's recital, more so than in her delightful operatic performance, Shafer had the opportunity to reveal a sensitive and intelligent sense of the words she sang. A smartly selected group of seven Schubert lieder revealed the remarkable genius of the composer's dramatic precision.

Schubert's lieder are like musical snowflakes; no two are quite alike. All of the songs in Shafer's group were commentaries on human relationships, but each was a prismatic refraction of specific color and weight, and Shafer grasped and conveyed those subtleties.

Her Goode connection

The Brahms and Mahler she sang after intermission featured earthier musical sentiments, which Shafer rendered with an elegance and poise that seemed to skirt the material's more sensual aspects but seems wholly appropriate to an artist of her age and experience. Her range of expression could be enhanced by an exploration of dynamic extremes and greater rhythmic freedom, but that will come with time.

If you wonder how a singer who is still a student managed to engage one of the world's most admired pianists as her accompanist, the answer lies in the wonderful world of Marlboro, the renowned Vermont summer musical festival where Goode is co-director and Shafer has spent two summers as a student. There, seasoned masters and the cream of the student crop play as equals and often form relationships that spill over to the public arena.

A bit rushed

For his part, Goode has long expressed a special interest in singers, in the tradition of such legendary pianists as Artur Schnabel, who counseled his own students to listen to great singing as a guide to great piano playing.

Goode provided an insightful and firm foundation for Shafer, and also played solo music. His Schubert, in this case a familiar Klavierstück and an Impromptu, fell from his fingers as naturally as breathing. The Brahms Intermezzi Op. 118, Nos. 1 and 2, sounded less easy. With this magnificent but emotionally elusive music, Goode sounded a bit rushed and didn't adequately tease out the music's inner voices.

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