Suzanne Kantorski-Merrill, soprano

Summer may not officially begin for another two weeks, but for me, it already has. I base my year around the schedule of classical concerts and series in my surrounding areas and, in that regard, my summer started last week when I attended a concert by Lara St. John and Martin Kennedy as part of the Windham Chamber Music Festival. I don’t know why there’s such a lack of live classical music to be had in the winter months, but that’s the way it is  (with the exception of a few shorter-run series which do take place during winter). Actually, I guess I do know part of the reason for that… Windham is a treacherous drive in the bad weather (although they are one of the few winter hosts of music, even if the concerts are few and far between); Maverick, one of my favorite places, is an open barn in the middle of the woods, not exactly ideal for December concerts; and another favorite of mine, with guaranteed great performers, is at a friends home, where he hosts a series of concerts every year. Not an ideal space in the winter months either, seeing as how the concerts are in a music room which is an extension of his house. The music room has glass double-doors, and a dome ceiling with a sky-roof at the summit. It would be too expensive to heat in the winter, not to mention drafty… But now the weather is warm, and Saturday marked the first concert of the year at my friends home. It was a performance by Suzanne Kantorski-Merrill, a soprano singer from Vermont, who was accompanied by Charity Weeks on piano.

The afternoon’s program opened with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 5. Suzanne’s voice is liquid enchantment. I didn’t think there was anything more beautiful than music, but her voice is, it’s in a class all it’s own. The intro was simply a melody sung by Suzanne without words, and had me openly weeping within seconds. She then sang a mournful and exquisite song, before humming the original melody to close the piece.

Next was a set of songs by Gabriel Faure. The first, Mandoline, Op. 58, No. 1, was delightful. Suzanne’s voice is so explanatory, with every little nuance and inflection describing the picture of the music to the listener. Chanson d’ Amour, Op. 27, No. 1, was sweet and lilting. Although the pieces were all from different Opus’, they went together seamlessly. Clair de Lune, Op. 46, No. 2 was the third song in the set. It was a thickly webbed song, hazy, floating over the audience in a dreamlike way. After that came Notre Amour, Op. 23, No. 2, which the piano played somewhat ethereally, softly gliding behind Suzanne’s voice which carried the vocal melody to extreme heights, both in range and expression. Last was the appropriately titled Adieu, Op. 21, No. 3.  It was soft and gentle, and dripped with a loss of hope. Not exactly a despairing song, but close. Next on the program was a work by Alfred Bachlet, called Chere Nuit. The duration of the piece was heard as though through a curtain. It was as if the music was expressing something just out of reach, or something the heart understands but the brain cannot yet grasp. Something which is certainly real, but completely unscientific.

The last set of songs before the intermission were by Felix Mendelssohn. They were Der Mond, Op. 86, No. 5; Neue Liebe, Op. 19, No. 4; and Auf Flugeln des Gesanges, Op. 34, No. 2. Der Mond was playful, yet mature. Neue Liebe was staccato in piano, and vocals at times as well. It was a fast moving dark song with a distinct bite, and it really showed off Suzanne’s vocal control. Midway through there was a short passage that was legato, before reverting back to the sharpness for the end. Auf des Gesanges was a waltz which was both deeply saddening and somehow uplifting. A real expression of humanity, I suppose. I knew Suzanne’s voice was beautiful from the first moment of the concert, but even so, I was blown away by the sheer definition of the word beauty that she coaxed not from her diaphragm, but from the universe. Her singing is truly, truly extraordinary.

After intermission, the mood of the concert changed considerably. The second half of the program was a collection of jazzy tunes by more contemporary composers (by comparison to the ones of the first half). The first was a John Duke song called The Bird, and although the power of Suzanne’s voice didn’t shake the whole room, it definitely shook through my body and greatly affected me… The song was delicate, but at times surged with power. Charles Ives’  Memories: Very Pleasant and Rather Sad were next. Very Pleasant is a real tongue twister!!! And Suzanne can not only sing, but also whistle most impressively, which the song called for. The end of Very Pleasant ran right into the beginning of Very Sad, which was flowing and legato.

Suzanne sang two of Ricky Ian Gordon’s songs, A Horse With Wings and Joy. The songs were beautiful! I’m glad Suzanne and Charity chose to perform them. The last song on the program was Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. It was a powerful show tune type song, and piano had a grand melody, as did vocals. I enjoyed the first half of the program better, but it was interesting to hear Suzanne let loose a little, and sing in a different style. The edition played and sung on Saturday was the orchestra reduction arrangement done by Samuel Barber himself, and there was something special about it. It started out reminiscent, before shaking itself out of it’s sentimental mood and becoming darker, both in music and lyrics. The music then took on a form somewhere between the two, both reminiscent and discontent. The lyrics are quite descriptive, and it was nice to hear the song sung in such an intimate and relaxed setting (with the glass doors wide open, and the birds chirping outside).

Suzanne and Charity were called back for an encore, and for that they played Andre Previn’s “I Want Magic.” Suzanne said of the song, “As a singer, sometimes you come across that one song that is so inspiring that you feel like it was written for you, and that’s this piece for me. I try to end every concert with it.” And made for her it was. It really did showcase her range, tone, and texture, and was all of the following; unsettling, magnificent, and overpowering. It gave me goosebumps (maybe another reason why it’s better to go to concerts in the warm weather, so you don’t go into hypothermia if the music has a physiological effect on you, as it tends to have on me). Speaking of physiological effects, I had a headache before the concert, but by the end, it was gone. Music, the best medicine for all ailments — not to mention the most soothing. I’m just glad the summer is (unofficially) here.

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