What group of people hereabouts has enjoyed the most graceful presentation so far in the early fall season? That would quite possibly be the audience on a clear and crisp evening in the grand old Smedes Parlor at Saint Mary's School. There they were treated to a creatively varied set of offerings by the rising-star mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar and the celebrated veteran pianist Deborah Hollis. These musicians presented a spectrum of artistry that complemented the new and gorgeous climatic conditions.
The first half of the program tossed "red meat" to the crowd from the world of familiar operatic selections. The singer showed astonishing range as she probed the contralto-like depths of "Cruda Sorte" (Cruel Fate) from Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri. She followed with a powerful reading of "This Journey to Christ" from Dead Man Walking, an opera by the contemporary American composer Jake Heggie. Herein are presented the profound musings of a nun pondering how she might attend to the spiritual needs of a convicted murderer.
Arias from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila continued the operatic basics. Although these selections are most usually set to orchestral accompaniment, the pianist here did a sterling job of emulating an orchestra, so thunderous and "huge" was much of her work. The singer's traversal of the great "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" (My heart opens to your voice) was praiseworthy enough to conjure favorable comparisons with notables from the past, say, Shirley Verrett.
In an apparent first for this Smedes Parlor Concert Series, the "pros" were assisted by a group of some sixteen charming young tyros. Director Jennifer Moran's Chamber Choir lent zest and completeness to the world's best-known aria, the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen.
Post intermission brought on a more somber and reflective mode. Here, most of the time was spent on eight songs from the famous cycle by Schumann, his Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman's Love and Life). "Seit ich ihn gesehen" (Since I saw him) opens the cycle with a lamentation of sorts. The accompaniment seems to yearn along with the singer. "…I would rather weep silently in my little chamber." Later on, "Du Ring an meinem Finger" was a dramatic highlight. "Thou ring on my finger…I press thee piously upon my lips…upon my heart."
If one were asked to choose the highlight of this Schumann set, it would have to be the closing "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" (Now you have given me…pain). It would be difficult to fault this rendition of those mournful sentiments. One is moved to grieve along with the singer ("…the world is void, / I have loved and lived, / I am no longer living), and the pianist adds a potent touch with that protracted solo postlude.
The closing set, Love After 1950, by yet another contemporary American composer, Libby Larsen, might be seen as a bit of an anticlimax, coming hard after that towering opus of Schumann's. It is not as though these four songs need any defense in their own right. They constitute a valuable modern and provocative addition to the "art song" repertory.
Farrar and Hollis have here extended the string of top-flight attractions that this series has long offered. The audience could scarcely have been more ably served.