A friend asked me recently what aspect of live performance I miss most fervently. Without hesitation, I answered vocal recitals. So I appreciated the opportunity to satiate my craving when Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) presented its first song program of the season, which featured soprano Michelle Bradley and pianist Brian Zeger streaming from Benjamin Franklin Hall.
I first heard Bradley about five years ago in New York, singing an ambitious and wide-ranging concert that included Verdi and Mozart arias, art songs in several languages, and well-known spirituals. The quality of her sound impressed me instantly, particularly in her rich middle and lower registers. At the time, though, she still seemed like a work in progress—her text work wasn’t always inspired, and her stylistic choices sometimes called to mind other artists well known for similar repertoire.
Elegance and versatility
Bradley projected elegance throughout the performance, from her understated stage deportment to her refined ensemble: a beaded black pantsuit with a floor-length jacket. Few younger singers truly understand the value of stillness in a recital; they tend to flit around the stage or work in bits of business that underline a song’s text too nakedly. Bradley never succumbed to that trap. Singing entirely from memory—another factor that has become regrettably rare—she led from her voice, and she proved once again that less in more.
Moving effortlessly from heavy hitters of the French and Germany repertory, Bradley displayed her versatility. Debussy’s Proses Lyriques require a fluency and style that don’t come easily to most American singers. Although she needed a bit of time to warm up, Bradley conveyed just the right tone by De soir (About the Evening), the quartet’s concluding song. She turned the sustained narrative of Ernest Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle into a miniature monodrama. In both selections and throughout the afternoon’s program, Zeger provided thoughtful, supportive accompaniment.
Serious music and smiles
Richard Strauss’s Morgen (literally "morning," commonly translated in this lied as "Tomorrow!") packs a world of emotion into about three minutes of music. Bradley showed herself as adept in high-lying, soft-grained phrases as she did elsewhere with her formidable lower register. She paired Morgen with Strauss's Befreit ("Liberated"), and followed with a complete performance of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. Although that set’s best-known selection, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I am lost to the world"), came across as oddly cheerful in Bradley’s delivery, she summoned the appropriate gravity in Um Mitternacht ("At Midnight") and Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! ("Do not look into my songs!").
The afternoon concluded with spirituals. From gorgeous melismas in “Here’s One” to the surprisingly light tone she adopted for “Honor, Honor!”, Bradley was at the peak of her vocal and interpretive powers. She ended with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” noting in brief remarks that she likes to finish “with something that will leave a smile on your face after such serious music.” Mission accomplished.
A personal performance
One reason I value vocal recitals so highly is that they offer the chance to view a performer on a personal level. Bradley certainly achieved this throughout, and given that she performed to an empty auditorium for a livestream audience, her command of the stage is even more admirable. PCMS has made the recital available on YouTube through February 3; watch it now and familiarize yourself with an artist you’ll surely be hearing about for years to come.
Image description: Pianist Brian Zeger, a white man wearing a black suit and a black face-mask, and singer Michelle Bradley, a Black woman wearing a beaded black dress and floor-length black jacket, are seen as if from an upper balcony performing on a small stage with a shiny wood floor.
What, When, Where
Michelle Bradley, soprano. Brian Zeger, piano. Vocal recital featuring Debussy, Chausson, R. Strauss, Mahler, and assorted spirituals. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Livestreamed on January 31, 2021, and available on demand for 72 hours thereafter (free, donations accepted). (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.