Showing range despite the limits

Rising mezzo-soprano star Chrystal E. Williams makes her PCMS debut

In
3 minute read
Williams, a Black woman, poses for a portrait style photo, standing near a window letting in a small amount of light.
Chrystal E. Williams has been on a steady rise in the operatic world. (Photo courtesy of PCMS.)

Sometimes you encounter an exciting artist in an imperfect setting. That was the case with Chrystal E. Williams’s debut recital with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) on December 17, 2021. The concert, which was also live-streamed from the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall, showed off Williams’s arresting sound and engaging personality, but the evening felt somewhat imbalanced in terms of interpretation and vocal variation.

A star on the rise

An alumna of the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Astral Artists program, Williams is a known commodity to many in Philadelphia. Her star has steadily risen in the operatic world, with a Metropolitan Opera debut in 2019 and recent successes in Europe and the United Kingdom. The art of recital requires a separate set of skills, however, and Williams sometimes struggled to adapt her large-scale mezzo-soprano voice to the intimate confines of the chamber-sized concert hall.

This dissonance was especially evident in Robert Schumann’s Frauen-Liebe und -Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life), which opened the performance. In addition to being one of the most overdone cycles in the repertory, I question why anyone continues to program this piece. The music is pleasant in a fustily familiar way, though nowhere near as interesting as anything by Schubert or Wolf. But the eight-song collection, which blatantly distills a woman’s worth to marriage, childbearing, and mourning her husband’s death, seems especially retrograde by modern standards.

Williams’s interpretation did not make a persuasive case for its sustained consideration. Her voice moved seamlessly from its very solid lower register to a bell-like upper extension, but color and dynamics remained largely one-dimensional throughout the cycle. Lieder interpretation lives and dies by textual specificity and the distinct shading of words and phrases, but Williams’s German diction was unmistakably inflected with American linguistic patterns.

Although she performed admirably without a music stand—a far too common crutch among recitalists these days—Williams projected an air of tentativeness at times, especially in the cycle’s central song, Du Ring an Meinem Finger (Your Ring on My Finger). This feeling was not helped by her accompanist, Laurent Philippe, who appeared to be genuinely sight-reading the music, and who contributed smudged passagework, late entrances, and clobbered postludes.

Showing range

Subsequent selections proved more successful and intriguing. Ernani Braga’s Cinco Canções Nordestinas do Folclore Brasiliero (Five Northeastern Brazilian Folks Songs) is not a complete rarity—it was recorded by Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão and Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza, among others—but it’s ripe for reintroduction. Williams navigated the linguistic challenges of this music exceptionally, rapidly deploying onomatopoeic sounds and words that occasionally had no English equivalent. I’m not a Portuguese speaker, but I was convinced of her mastery. The low end of her voice, which seems to be her most solid register, was extremely well suited to stretches of music that approximated speaking on pitch.

Thoughts in Song… from Moments in Sunder, a 2016 setting of Maya Angelou poems by contemporary composer B.E. Boykin, was neither musically nor dramatically memorable. But Williams offered a ravishing account of Boykin’s “Secret,” where long-spun legato lines alternated with zesty sprung rhythms.

The evening came to an end with the art of the spiritual. Williams chose to highlight the contribution of women composers to this art form, offering jubilant interpretations of Margaret Bonds’s “You Can Tell the World” and Undine Smith Moore’s “Come Down Angels.” She encouraged the audience to respond in any way they felt moved to, which led to spirited clapping during her encore, a heartfelt rendition of “Ride On, King Jesus” that Williams dedicated to her mother.

What, When, Where

Chrystal E. Williams, mezzo-soprano. Laurent Philippe, piano. Recital featuring songs by Robert Schumann, Ernani Braga, B.E. Boykin, Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, and Lena J. McLin. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. $20. December 17, 2021, at the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.

A live-streamed version of the recital is available to watch on a pay-what-you-wish basis until December 21, 2021.

PCMS requires all attendees to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to attend. Masks must be worn at all times. Audience capacity has been reduced for concerts at Benjamin Franklin Hall to allow for distanced seating.

Accessibility

Accessible seating is available at all PCMS venues and can be reserved in advance by calling or emailing the PCMS box office.

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