Some of the most interesting Carmel Bach Festival events every year are the open sessions of the Virginia Best Adams Vocal Master Classes, which give us an intimate glimpse of some of the most outstanding members of the CBF Chorale, who are young professionals well on their way to establishing their own careers. David Gordon usually presides over these master classes, but since he was occupied in rehearsals Monday afternoon, standing in for him on this occasion was David Newman, a distinguished member of the CBF Chorale. Newman introduced himself to the audience saying that twenty years previously he had been a Virginia Best Adams Fellow sitting in the first row where the four young singers were seated while waiting to participate in the session. The assisting pianist for these classes is the versatile Michael Beattie, who seems to be at home in just about any style you can imagine, whether it be opera, oratorio, art songs, or Lieder.
The first singer we heard was mezzo soprano Janna Critz, winner of the biennial 2014 Bethlehem Bach Vocal Competition and the founder in 2014 of the ensemble, Bel Pianto, a Baroque concert series presenting German, French and Italian vocal music from the early 16th to mid 17th centuries. After singing Cara speme from Handel’s Giuilo Cesare, Newman complimented her and asked her what was the “affect” she was trying to project, since this aria has so many lovely moments, although the text, especially in the middle section, is about uncontrolled anger and the intention to kill. A superb teacher, Newman leaned heavily on the Socratic concept of asking questions to initiate a dialog that would bring issues into sharper focus resulting in a more effective performance. Newman asked, “How does the anger and darkness of the B section affect your performance of the Da Capo return to the A section?” Together they tried various solutions, and we heard the aria becoming more intense as we observed from the audience. Newman complimented Critz on her ornamentation and embellishment, asking whether she had improvised them on the spot –- we learned that mostly they had been worked out in advance, but in the spirit of the moment they had evolved somewhat to give a more spontaneous effect. Newman additionally said, “This aria is not about “pretty. It is a vehicle to show how good you are, and if the character in your role is becoming unhinged, don’t be afraid to show it.”
Jana Miller & David Newman
Stepping up on stage next was Canadian soprano Jana Miller, who has many competition highlights to her credit, including the First Prize in singing at the 2014 Prix d’Europe Competition. Jana sang the second aria, Weichet nur betrübte Schatten, from Bach’s Wedding Cantata, BWV 202. After some nice compliments, once again we heard questions about how to make the return to the A section in a da capo aria different from our first hearing, and how to make the audience feel the difference. Newman suggested some grotesque movements of the jaw to free up the voice –- naturally to be somewhat concealed in public performance. Newman discussed how in arias like this we need to be direct, sincere and utterly natural, and not trying to be the biggest and greatest opera singer in the world. It is the text and the dramatic effect that really matter. Newman mentioned that in a singers’ training, they are often told that they have to be better, bigger, more expressive, more profound, etc., but in the long run what counts is to be yourself, not what you think you should be, or what people expect.
One of the characteristics of Jana Miller’s singing was her ability to begin a note ever so softly and gradually bring up the intensity to where it grabbed you and held you in its grip. It gave me goose bumps twice, and I marveled at the way it snuck up on me each time without my being aware of what was coming.
Next we heard tenor Brian Giebler, in a non-stop melisma marathon singing So schnell in rauschend Wasser fleißt from Bach’s Cantata No. 26. It was impressive how he could maintain his momentum without appearing to breathe. Newman praised his skill of so carefully selecting places to breathe unobtrusively that most of the audience was unaware of his breathing. Newman spoke about considering each new melisma as a “Genesis” parallel with the continuo (hearing pianist Beattie’s performance of the fast moving continuo in tandem with Giebler was one of the high spots of the afternoon’s session). Newman suggested that Giebler lean into the melismas and not to be afraid of them. Newman’s last words to Giebler: “Make sure that you conquer the aria and the aria doesn’t conquer you.
The last singer of the afternoon was bass David Rugger, a Ph.D candidate in Musicology at Indiana University, who sang the “Jesus” recitatives from the St. John Passion. Rugger’s deeply impassioned and strong rich voice filled the church with ease. Newman praised Rugger’s performance and commented that unlike Jesus’s role in the St. Matthew Passion, where Jesus expresses doubt about his fate and seems to consider avoiding it, in the St. John Passion, Jesus is fully accepting of his fate and is angry with his persecutors that they don’t recognize his willingness to be crucified. Newman felt that Rugger captured this strength and defiance in his performance, but suggested that Rugger think more about acting and less about singing, for the underlying text was more important than the way it is sung. Newman showed a nice respect for Rugger’s artistry and said at the end, “We are not playing demonstration and copy – you must find your own way.”
Throughout this session Newman demonstrated a nice respect for these young professionals and also demonstrated the attributes of a “born” teacher. He probed the singers with questions and led them in slightly new directions –- always with the intention of bringing out the best in them and helping them to find their own way to reach their goals.