Andrew Megill & Michael Beattie
At Carmel Presbyterian Church on Monday, July 28, we had an opportunity to hear four of the 2014 Adams Vocal Master Class young professional singers working with Festival Associate Conductor Andrew Megill. David Gordon introduced the session remarking that this is the 30th season of the Adams Vocal Master Class. Although up to this moment I had never met Mr. Megill nor heard his speaking or singing voice, during this master class we had ample opportunities to hear both, for not only did he have something to say about a variety of stylistic, technical and musical problems, but he also was not the least bit shy about instantly singing a passage to illustrate an important point.
What we were observing in this class was an advanced type of coaching of young professionals (they are already masters of their craft and members of the Festival Chorale), by a master musician who knows the vocal repertoire intimately from over forty years of singing and conducting a variety of ensembles at many distinguished institutions.
Some people attending concerts don’t understand a music director or conductor’s true function. What they see is a man on a podium waving a baton. What they usually don’t realize is that most of what they hear on stage happens because of what occurred in rehearsals. To fully appreciate Paul Goodwin and Andrew Megill you have to observe them working with musicians in the preparation for a final performance. Only then can you appreciate how much effort during rehearsals goes into listening to and fine tuning an ensemble with artistic and stylistic considerations in mind.
In a sense, our participation as members of the audience at the Adams Vocal Master Class on Monday was our initiation into some aspects of the back-stage craft of assembling and polishing a musical performance. Most impressive was how Megill listened intensely to each singer, complimented each on their professionalism and then made suggestions that ended up making subtle improvements in their performances. Throughout, Megill utilized a Socratic method of asking the singers precise questions to determine their understanding of the music and the attendant text. Engaging them in such an important dialog was always done in a friendly and respectful manner. Although the participants are very young, Megill treated them as colleagues to whom he was offering advice and a second opinion. Assisting at the keyboard was the very fine pianist Michael Beattie.
Andrew Megill & Johanna Bronk
The first singer to take the stage was mezzo soprano Johanna Bronk, from New York City, singing Qui ti sfido from Handel’s “Arianna in Creta.” Megill complimented her on a lovely performance and asked her what she especially loved about this aria. She mentioned the contrast between the A & B sections, to which Megill suggested that in spite of all the good things she was doing, she needed to do more, and especially to enhance the contrasts between the two sections, since the real drama derives from these contrasts. Megill mentioned that singers train to make everything consistent and on a high level, but that in opera we have to separate the different emotional states and be surprised by little contrasting surges of energy. At the end of the session Johanna sang Qui ti sfido again, and the performance became more vivid and forceful.
Next, soprano Lianne Coble, also from New York City, sang Salve Regina by Allesandro Grandi (1586-1630). There was much in her performance that Megill really liked, but he suggested she try for a simpler, less robust sound to make the character more meaningful. He felt that all the colorings could be more experimental with less force and less vibrato in the crescendi. Megil asked a lot of questions about the text and what was happening in the orchestra. In his dialog with her, he was constantly probing to see whether there was more she could get out of the score. At the end, Lianne sang the aria once again, and although it was in one sense more restrained, it was at the same time more expressive and more intense.
Next we heard tenor Steven Soph, from Boulder, Colorado, sing Auch die harte Kreuzesreise from J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 123. For the benefit of the audience, Megill asked Steven to describe the meaning of the text, from which we learned that it was about the passage of the cross on the way to the crucifixion, with Jesus saying over and over again, Schrecht mich nicht! (I am not afraid!) We heard Megill suggest shaping the phrase to emphasize “nicht” more forcefully. Megill made some suggestions to improve the section depicting the storm raging. When Soph sang the aria once more at the end of his session, we noticed an enhanced sense of drama.
The afternoon’s class ended with baritone Taylor Ward, from Paris, France, singing a motet for bass, ab aeterno ordinate sum, from Selva morale e spirituale, SV 262, by Claudio Monteverdi. Megill engaged Ward in a discussion of how an aria by Bach might contain one or two ideas, yet Monteverdi gives us many contrasting ideas in one aria, and it is a lot to digest. Megill and Ward discussed the enormous range of two octaves and a fifth encompassed in this motet, and we marveled at the low D (difficult for a bass, and even more so for a baritone) that Ward achieved so easily. They worked together on the long opening note to make it more effective, and with very pleasing results. We heard Ward sing it once again at the end, and it was even more spectacular.