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In a printed program, a listing of 25 German lieder sung without intermission might appear to be somewhat daunting. But in its Longwood Gardens debut on Saturday, Lyric Fest delivered a bracing and beautiful concert (modeled after a European salon experience) that was both a celebration of Earth Day and a fitting addition to their ambitious 20th-anniversary season.
The torrential spring rains outside were forgotten in the spring tide of art song that flowed in Longwood’s elegant flower-filled ballroom. It’s a perfect space for a concert like this, with the evening’s four excellent singers enjoying an intimate audience, who were able to hear and read every nuance of these 18th, 19th, and early 20th-century works.
A marriage of art and nature
Lyric Fest is known for thoughtful programming, and this concert was no exception. The Metamorphosis of Plants was a remarkable scientific work published in 1790 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1842). Now best-known as a poet and playwright, this renowned German polymath was also a novelist, statesman, theater director, critic, and a serious naturalist. In her illuminating introduction to the concert, co-artistic director Suzanne DuPlantis spoke about this scientific treatise, in which Goethe lays out a sophisticated view of the natural world, based on his rigorous studies and knitted together by his many interests.
It was Goethe’s marriage of art and the natural world that inspired DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward (Lyric Fest’s co-artistic director) to create this unusual evening, which featured Ward at Longwood's 1923 Steinway (an excellent instrument for this music). She was a perfectly matched virtuosic partner for the concert’s quartet of first-rate singers: Kristina Bachrach (soprano), Kathryn Leemhuis (mezzo), Andrew Fuchs (tenor), and Randall Scarlata (baritone).
This program—uninterrupted by applause, as requested—offered a feast from familiar song-repertoire composers, as well as works by some not usually associated with this genre. There were songs ranging from “Gott in Frühline (God in Springtime)” by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) to “Nocturne” by Joseph Marx (1882-1964).
In between was a flood of works by familiar lieder composers like Brahms, Wolf, Richard Strauss, Clara and Robert Schumann, and the Mendelssohns (Fanny and Felix). Surprises, though, included songs by Erich Korngold, Carl Friedrich Zelter, Alma Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg—each carefully chosen to bring forth the composers’ rapture with the natural beauty and the gift of living among its glories.
Embracing the audience
Before each song, DuPlantis (offstage) read brief, aptly chosen descriptive excerpts from the title Goethe work. There were helpful well-managed supertitles, along with an accompanying video of illuminating botanicals photographed by Marianne Miserandino, Dimitrios Diamantaras, Lynn Waelde, and Diane Mattis. But as arresting and timely as these images were, it was the music and the musicians that created the evening’s most vivid pictures.
A song recital’s success depends on the singer’s ability to embrace the audience. Even in such an appropriate venue, it might seem that four disparate voices in rotation would hamper this connection. But here, the excellent quartet (mostly solo but occasionally in ensemble) was so sensitively chosen and so in tune with their material that the evening felt totally unified. Art song composers often highlight accompaniment as well as the vocal lines, and Ward’s ease with this complex music and her sensitivity to the singers added to the beauty of the evening.
Lyric Fest’s decision to present The Metamorphosis of Plants unbroken by song sets and without applause was an inspired one. These were 25 perfect and perfectly sung gems, and it was impossible to single out one highlight, one lieder, or one performer from this beautifully flowing and intricately conceived concert. The audience sat enraptured during the entire evening, which flew by, as they say, on wings of song.
Above: Photo by Gail Obenreder.
What, When, Where
The Metamorphosis of Plants: A Lieder Celebration for Earth Day. Narration and video creation by Suzanne DuPlantis. Laura Ward; piano. Kristina Bachrach, Kathryn Leemhuis, Andrew Fuchs, and Randall Scarlata; vocals. Lyric Fest. April 22, 2023, at Longwood Gardens in the Conservatory Ballroom, Kennett Square. (215) 438-1702 or lyricfest.org.
Longwood Gardens and its conservatory and ballroom (and all its amenities) are wheelchair-accessible.
Masks were not required.
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