David Gordon, Master Class Director
This year’s sessions of the Adams Master Class are being led by Master Class Director David Gordon, Festival Associate Conductor Andrew Megill and Festival Vocalists Mhairi Lawdon, Meg Bragle and David Newman. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the last of the sessions on Thursday, July 26, at Carmel Presbyterian Church in Carmel. The culmination of these sessions will be the Virginia Best Adams Masterclass Showcase Concert at 1:30 pm on Saturday afternoon, July 28, also at Carmel Presbyterian.
All too often master classes involve distinguished performers lording it over young students, who become victims of the master class teacher’s vanity and ego. Nothing could be further from the truth during the Adams master classes. The participants we heard today are young professionals already successful in their careers, and the Adams Master Classes represent advanced coaching from a seasoned professional to younger colleagues. The interaction between David Gordon and the young young singers was always warm, courteous, respectful and gently inspiring.
Hanna De Priest
The first young singer we heard was soprano Hanna De Priest, from Chicago, singing the aria Zerfliesse, mein Herze from Bach’s St. John Passion. One of the first things Gordon said to her after her performance was, “You do a lot of creative breathing, and I do mean that as a compliment.” The subject of breathing, which we tend to do naturally and without thinking, became a frequent topic during the afternoon session as something that has to be studied as a form of high art whose degree of skill can enhance (or weaken) a performance. Gordon worked with De Priest on tone painting, especially in one phrase depicting a “flood of tears,” and it was impressive how easily she was able to respond to his suggestions. Gordon prefaced one of his suggestions saying that she didn’t have to adopt them to please him, but merely consider them as guides that she if she liked, she could make thoroughly convincing in her own personal way. At the end of her session we heard her perform the aria once again, and it was more intense and more expressive.
We then heard tenor Jonas Budris, from Boston, in the recitative Einer aber unter ihnen and the aria Übermass der Gute from Bach’s Cantata BWV 17, Nur dank opfert, der preiset mich. Gordon praised his clarity of diction and expression in the narrative mode of the recitative. Gordon said, “Some have to work hard to do it, and others are born with it. You have chosen your grand parents well.” In the aria Gordon mentioned that we have to come to a work with an idea or concept of how best to express the textual meanings, and Budris did this very well. There was one place where Gordon suggested he start a phrase softer to give himself room to grow, and always to be aware of the demands of the text as well as the blending with the underlying instrumentation. We heard Budris several times try out parts of the aria, and observed some of the changes he was able to make each time so that the performance became more and more convincing.
Next up was baritone Andrew Padgett, from New York City, in the recitative Du bist mein Gott and the aria Laß mein Herz die Münze sein from Bach’s Cantata BWV 163, Nur jedem das Seine. After complimenting his rich and solid performance, Gordon once again brought up the subject of breathing, “Breathing has to be a skillfully controlled part of expression.” We heard much about breathing through the vowels, and also vowels in relation to words ending with a consonant. Gordon suggested Padgett vary his dynamics in a passage, and we found it admirable how easily Padgett could immediately make subtle adjustments. Once again we heard passages worked through over and over again with subtle changes injected. It was an enriching experience for those of us in the audience to hear a passage constantly being refined and polished.
Mezzo-Soprano Luthien Bracket from New York City was the last performer in the afternoon session. She sang the recitative Mein lieber Heiland du and the aria Buss und Reu from the St. Matthew Passion. It was a pleasure hearing her trying out many suggestions from Gordon. He was always very clear that suggestions were only suggestions, and that any approach finally adopted must reflect her conviction that it was the best possible solution for her, relative to the text and its meaning. They worked together on a passage describing a “flood of tears” and perhaps how to use a controlled staccato to better depict the falling tears. Gordon suggested that the word Knirscht (crushed) needed to be emphasized without grimacing — the effect and meaning should come from the music, not from facial expressions, which might be distracting. Once again, one of the great delights in this master class was having the opportunity to hear the same passages many times in succession and to observe how subtle changes could be enormously effective.
Finally, we have to praise the magnificent assistance from pianist Michael Beattie who provided orchestral reductions (often transposing them up or down) for the four vocalists. You will notice I am not using the word “accompanist” (or its even worse form, “accompanyist”). In New York City many years ago, I coached with pianist Artur Balsam, who had been Nathan Milstein’s pianist for over 30 years. I once used the word “accompanist” in his presence and got a dressing down I will never forget, “The ‘A’ word is never spoken in this house and is as offensive as the ‘F’ word.” Michael Beattie is a wonderful example of a fabulous musician, who just happens to play the piano (as well as conduct, and coach other musicians).
And then there is David Gordon who does so many things in music, and about music, and does them all superlatively. We are truly blessed to have him in our community.