With only a few days away from opening night at the 2019 Carmel Bach Festival, we had an opportunity yesterday afternoon at First Presbyterian Church in Carmel to observe the first in the series of the Virginia Best Adams Masterclasses. As in previous years, it was a moving experience to hear four exciting young singers in the early stages of their careers. Presiding master class teacher David Newman, addressing the singers seated in the first row, informed them, “A few decades ago I was siting where you are now as a young Virginia Best Adams Fellow.”
During the twenty years that Franz Liszt was resident in Weimar, he remarked to a friend that as he walked the cobbled streets of Weimar he often felt the presence of Johann Sebastian Bach. Today, as spectators to the latest round of Virginia Best Adams Fellows, we felt the presence of David Gordon, whose absence this year invokes many memories of his guiding spirit over three decades that helped elevate the Adams Masterclasses to the status they enjoy today.
The afternoon began with a heartfelt performance by soprano Nola Richardson, an Australian by birth, who has spent most of her life in the USA and is currently pursuing a DMA on a full scholarship at Yale University’s School of Music. She sang for us the recitative Du Falscher, suche nur den Herrn zu fällen and the aria, Nur ein Wink, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Newman immediately complimented her: “A lot of great color.” They worked together to enhance the meanings of words, phrases and sections, which Newman commented, “often come in conflict with each other.” For us as spectators and observers, it was fascinating to see how Richardson responded so easily to Newmans suggestions and how her performance became richer and gained in dramatic impact.
Next we heard mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, an active soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States, who sang the aria, Von den Stricken, from the St. John Passion. Newman was enthusiastic: “You have such a wonderful voice. I love your dedication throughout the entire aria, from beginning to end.” Newman explained to the audience the significance of this text: “You are setting us free by letting yourself be bound.” Newman advised her not to think about singing beautifully, but to sing effectively in relation to the text and the music. At one point Newman asked Osowski whether she would be willing to make an ugly sound if it would enhance the dramatic effect. To observe some of Newman’s suggested changes and how easily Osowski could adapt them to her own personal performance was an enriching experience.
Next up was tenor Corey Shotwell, originally from Michigan, but now pursuing an MMA degree from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, who gave us a moving rendition of the aria: Benedictus, from Bach’s B Minor Mass. Pronunciation had been an oft-mentioned subject so far during this master class, and it came up again after Shotwell’s performance. Newman spoke about the various hybrid pronunciations of Latin — French, Italian, English and German. He recommended that Shotwell firmly commit himself to the German pronunciation. Newman gave a demonstration in various passages to illustrate how to make the text clearer. Once again it was heartwarming to observe how Shotwell was so easily able to adapt to various suggestions. When the subject of performance anxiety came up, Newman gave the advice: “You have to connect with the audience. You are giving them the gift of your singing.”
The final singer of the afternoon session was Baritone Will Prapestis, a very active performer in the Boston and New York area, who sang for us: Et in spiritum, from Bach’s B Minor Mass. At its conclusion, Newman uttered, “You just exhibited the most impressive breath control heard this afternoon.” He added that the high tessitura in this aria was an additional obstacle that Prapestis had so easily overcome. Newman suggested that as singers we don’t want to overthink what we are doing with our voice, but rather to try to achieve musically our musical intentions — and our voice will know what to do. To observe how well Prapestis and Newman worked together to experiment with possible enhancements of voice versus text was very enlightening.
Hearing these young professionals in a master class format was especially enriching for the audience, as we watched singer and master teacher interacting and trying over and over to reach a better way to be more expressive, dramatic and meaningful.
A special thanks needs to be extended to pianist Michael Beatie, a fantastically able and sensitive collaborator, who makes playing difficult orchestra reductions look very easy, which it certainly is not. His presence in the master classes is impressive indeed.