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Delightful conversation with Claude Debussy

  • Jul 13, 2012
By Catherine Olson From The Register-Guard July 12, 2012  The temperature was warm, but the poetry was hot at the Bach Festival’s Debussy “Soirée” on Tuesday evening at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. With the sumptuous words of symbolist poet Paul Verlaine running as an icy hot thread throughout the performance, both as composer’s inspiration and a sensuous mélodie text, the ecstasy and destitute of love and existence were brought to life at the piano and in song. The unmistakable highlight of the evening was the flawless technique and expressive mastery of pianist Ya-Fei Chuang. A Taiwan-born performer and pedagogue, Chuang has founded programs on teaching piano interpretation and performance in leading conservatories, but her impeccable portrayal of Claude Debussy’s poetic musical lines are themselves a lesson in superb legato and a perfect French salon style. Opening the program with the well known Suite bergamasque, Chuang’s Prélude and Menuet varied between luxurious legato and a sparseness that resulted in an enlivened clarity. Later, in L’Isle joyeuse, her cadenza-like trills truly transported listeners to a place as beautiful as the title implies. Stage director Kirk Boyd set the scene of this soirée with projections of Jean-Antoine Watteau and Edgar Degas in an overall conversational rather than formal presentational style. Unfortunately, the pastel and frill-laden supernumeraries brought in to add movement and ambience only distracted from an otherwise graceful evening. Thanks to the professionalism of Chuang, three masterful vocalists and collaborative pianist David Riley, however, the characteristically French setting remained intact. The conversational style was elevated further by tenor Tom Randle, who spoke up to describe Debussy as “a master in the art of the unspoken,” a truth especially apparent in the lilting melody and deceiving harmonies of Romance: L’âme évaporée est souffrante. Randle’s smooth top, luscious low register and conversational style sounded in perfect accord with Debussy’s style and artistry. He and David Riley bonded through their dedication to style, versatility and lively musical jesting. Canadian mezzo-soprano Anita Krause lent a delicate vocal beauty and expressive, blossoming upper tones to the most sensuous poetry of the evening. Although the Chansons de Bilitis weren’t written by an ancient Greek courtesan named Bilitis, as poet Pierre Louÿs claimed, they still embody a sexual energy that results in some of Debussy’s most erotic musical moments. The subtlety required for the artful expression of these Parnassian texts was not realized in Krause’s performance, but her exceptional vocal color and depth revealed an artist of intelligence and great promise. When vocal powerhouse Tamara Wilson walked into the room, there might have been a hushed wonder as to whether such a commanding voice might blow the roof off this subtle little salon. Yet, with soaring legato and impeccable delivery of the text, this remarkable soprano captivated all with an alluring voice and elegant expression of the poet Verlaine’s haunting encounters with lost love. Wilson and Riley soared through Ariettes oubliées with impeccable sensitivity to the poetic line, most notably in the sparse and isolated final mélodie, Spleen, in which the two musicians melded into a one powerful musical force. Catherine Olson of Portland has a master’s degree in voice performance from the University of Oregon.