Eugene Chan’s Handsome Schwabacher Debut

Jason Victor Serinus on March 7, 2011
Eugene Chan

Some singers stride on stage, in full possession of their vocal facilities. Others take a while to settle in. Such was the case with baritone Eugene Chan, a Merola Opera Program alum who came into his own Sunday in the second half of his Schwabacher Debut Recital, in Temple Emanu-El’s Martin Meyer Sanctuary. By then, his able accompanist, John Churchwell, the future head of music staff at San Francisco Opera, had also assessed the full measure of voice and piano in the hall and tempered his pianism enough to allow Chan’s voice to project without obstruction.

Blessed with perfect posture, broad shoulders and chest, a full head of shiny black hair, and an easy, assuring smile that has surely melted a thousand hearts, Chan has a voice as handsome as his countenance. Although shallow at the bottom of the range, it quickly blossoms into a full, resonant instrument with generous hints of glory on top. His diction is exemplary, with vowels and consonants clearly sounded within a flowing, legato line.

With his voice exhibiting considerable passion, Chan shone in his postintermission set of Russian Romances. His unforced masculinity proved an especially good fit for Serenada Don Zhuana (Don Juan’s serenade), with the occasional touch of bluster on top enhancing the portrayal. Unafraid to embrace a song that many recitalists intentionally eschew because it is so easily overdone, Chan’s Njet, tolka tot, kto znal (None but the lonely heart) was far more convincing than maudlin. Only a slightly flat penultimate note marred an otherwise superb performance.

Chan’s two Rachmaninov songs were another high point, with gorgeous vocalism allied to passionate declamation. Only the extended Nicolas Medtner song, Zemnij vecher (Winter evening), fell short. Not only was the tessitura too low, but the song’s repeated notes and phrases failed to rise above the prosaic. Churchwell, on whose constantly whirling, virtuosic piano part Medtner lavished the bulk of his compositional poetry, could not resist the temptation to play like a virtuoso, thereby drowning Chan’s voice in a sea of notes.

By contrast, Chan’s five Ives songs were models of simplicity. His unaffected delivery in In the Alley and The Circus Band proved ideal for a young lad as easily infatuated as forlorn. Although several of the songs suffered from long-held final notes, the touching loveliness of Chan’s singing was compensation aplenty.

Slow Start

The three Mahler songs with which Chan began the program were a disappointment. Churchwell played too loudly, and Chan had to resort to semi-speaking his low notes until the voice fully warmed to the room.

Nicht wiedersehen! (Never to see again!) lacked intensity, and the delightful Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? (Who thought up this pretty little ditty?) was devoid of lightness and humor. Rather than bubbling forth as it should, the song seemed to stretch Chan’s one tone technique to its limits. The climactic high note was pushed rather than joyous.

The 16 songs of Schumann’s oft-performed Dichterliebe also fell short of the mark. Although this gorgeous, heart-rending cycle is so frequently performed that it seems to have become the vehicle by which every male lieder singer attempts to prove his worth, its challenges can as easily expose weaknesses as display strengths.

Chan and Churchwell’s approach could be summed up as follows: When the singer wished to sound deeply moved, he slowed down considerably. To ensure that the effect sank in, the pianist followed suit in the instrumental postlude, and lingered far too long.

In at least nine of the 16 songs, Chan lost momentum and sacrificed intensity for the sake of sounding sensitive. The problem manifested early on, when the start of the second verse of the opening song, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (In the wonderfully beautiful month of May), was sung so slowly as to seem vitiated. When the duo chose to present a song straight through at a reasonable tempo, as they did with “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne” (The rose, the lily, the dove, the sun), the performance was quite fine. But when the affliction of formulaic ritardandos and rallentandos continued to surface, as for example in the line (in translation) “Yet when you say, ‘I [stretched] love [stretched] you! [stretched],’” this Dichterliebe sounded far more self-conscious than convincing.

This is not an argument for strict tempo lieder performance. Some of the finest interpreters of the present and past take an extremely flexible approach to tempo. But they slow when it makes both musical and textual sense. They also make an art of emphasizing key vowels and consonants, and alter color, expression, dynamics, and even vibrato in ways that make the performance seem deeply felt rather than mechanically manipulated.

There were some truly wonderful moments, including the glorious high climax of Ich grolle nicht (I bear no grudge) and the deep bite into the phrase Zerrissen mir das Herz (Torn my heart in two). But instead of letting the sounds of death dance through the final song, the duo offered yet more slowing and softening. The final emotional blow came, not through the music, but when the house manager abruptly turned on the lights to full brightness in the midst of applause. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t feel what all the notes were about.