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Susanna Phillips' Great Promise

February 24, 2013

Cal Performances

Susanna Phillips“You’ll have to indulge me,” said soprano Susanna Phillips as she took to the stage of Hertz Hall for her Cal Performances recital debut on Sunday afternoon. “I got a bit of a sore throat on the plane.”

How refreshing to encounter a relatively young artist who reaches out to her audience before singing a single note, even if her embrace was not filled with the best of news.

After excusing the modest glass of water she had brought onstage to help her get through the recital, Phillips introduced her opening three selections from Schubert’s Ellens Gesänge (Ellen’s songs). It took only the first song, “Raste Krieger! Krieg ist aus” (Rest warrior! Your war is over), for the Alabama-born artist to make clear why she received the Beverly Sills Artist Award in 2010, and has spent the last five years performing at the Metropolitan Opera (most recently as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Pamina in his Magic Flute). Although her top notes were tight at first, and momentary hoarseness occasionally crept into her lower range throughout the concert, Phillips displayed an otherwise refreshingly healthy, shining soprano that melds youthful lyricism with surprising heft and emotional depth. Every note she sang felt contemplated — not in a self-conscious, mental way, but rather in her emotional core.

How much of Phillips’ promise as a recitalist of distinction was left unfulfilled by the state of her throat — given the occasional intrusion of hoarseness, I kept wondering if she would return after intermission — cannot be determined from this recital. Nonetheless, what was clear, on this particular afternoon, was that she often stopped short of fully inhabiting the sensual nature of some of her repertoire.

As beautifully as she sang Chausson’s gorgeous Le Colibri (The hummingbird) and Les Papillons (The butterflies), she stopped short of completing the kiss and sinking into the “death” of lovemaking at the heart of these songs. And later on, in Granados’ Gracia mia (My graceful one), I had the sense that she again could have given more, and abandon herself more fully to the music.

Phillips displayed a refreshingly healthy, shining soprano that melds youthful lyricism with surprising heft and emotional depth.

Nor in Berg’s Seven Early Songs did she capture all the sweep and rapture of the composer’s hothouse romanticism. “Schilflied” (Song amid the reeds) was quite believable as a love song, but “Die Nachtigall” (The nightingale) was not. Ultimately, it and “Traumgekrönt” (Crowned in dreams) are deeply personal, down-and-dirty songs where an artist, with the total support of her pianist, must metaphorically strip herself naked and wrap herself, body and soul, around the sensuality of words and music. Phillips and her otherwise superb pianist, Myra Huang, did not.

By no means is this meant to dismiss her performance of Berg’s tonal gems. The high notes were gorgeous, and the naiveté that Phillips brought to “Liebesode” (Ode to love) was endearing. Huang was especially remarkable in “Schilflied,” where she conveyed intimacy amid grandness. Who knows how Phillips might have performed, had she not been constrained by her sore throat?

A few other questions arose. For the last of Ellen’s Songs, Schubert’s beloved “Ave Maria,” Phillips’ response was naïve and, in my view, much too literal. The song may derive from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, but this is one instance where it’s better to leave that suffering maiden to her own fate and sing the song piously but straight. Instead, Phillips strove to illumine the meaning of individual words in the last verse, with Huang following suit by swelling in volume and then, in the piano postlude, momentarily slowing for emotional emphasis. It was all too fussy.

Evolving Vocal Approach

Before her performance of Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, Deuxième Livre (Poems for Mi, Book 2), Phillips commented how much her approach to the five songs has changed since she recorded nine of them a few years ago for Bridge. I can only wonder how her approach to all the songs on the program will evolve by the time this youthful artist turns 35.

As before, the songs called for more abandonment than Phillips registered in her voice. In “Le Collier” (The necklace), for example, she raised her hands around her head, and then dropped the invisible necklace to her chest, but I didn’t hear the sensual embrace that words and gestures indicated.

Huang was especially remarkable in “Schilflied,” where she conveyed intimacy amid grandness.

Certainly, her cute and teasing tone was as ideal for Granados’ “El majo discreto” (The discreet Majo) as were the sheer beauty of her singing and Huang’s playing when they both got going in the composer’s “Elegia eternal” (Eternal elegy). And their performance of eight selections from Gordon Myers’ Do You Sing, Mr. Twain? was an unequivocal delight. You haven’t lived until you hear the duo’s rendition of “On Rules of Writing, No. 14,” complete with trills, Baroque ornaments, and all sorts of excess in a song whose words beg for restraint.

After finally letting it all out at the song’s conclusion, Phillips acknowledged the audience’s enthusiasm with a sole encore. “My voice is about to go,” she explained as she introduced Peter Rose’s old-fashioned Deep Purple, with a most endearing dedication.

In an era when performing arts organizations are cutting back on song recitals (not that programming them at 3:00 p.m. on a sunny Sunday afternoon is destined to lure younger audience members), too many superb artists make a single recital debut and then either disappear or return (as in the case of Wolfgang Holzmair) only after a decade or two. Phillips’ voice is so beautiful, and her dedication so evident, that it would be a great shame if we did not have another opportunity to enjoy her sooner rather than later, while her voice retains the alluring bloom of youth. Maybe next time we can get her at the start of her travels, before anything she may contract on the plane takes hold.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.