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Solomon: ‘Winterreise’ An Extraordinary Journey

on August 13, 2019 - 7:13am
Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly. Courtesy photo
For the Los Alamos Daily Post

The last day of a hot July seemed perfect for a Winter Journey. St. Francis Auditorium was a cool, serene refuge from the heat and hubbub of high summer in downtown Santa Fe; and the SF Chamber Music Festival concert was Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter trip), written in 1827 to poems by Wilhelm Muller.

This immortal work, his intimate confession approaching death at age 31, contains some of Schubert’s most beautiful and haunting songs, those he liked best himself. It tells of a man running from a broken heart so desperately, he must leave in the dark of a winter’s night, not even turning back for his hat blown off by the wind. The evocative music weaves the landscapes, without and within, so that we see and feel with the traveler. It is truly an extraordinary Journey across continents and oceans, seasons and centuries to Romantic Vienna, and the love and loss within every heart.

Any opportunity to hear Winterreise live in its entirety is a gift, and this performance was no exception. Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly brought a rich, dark molasses voice to his perhaps too-restrained performance, occasionally scooping or covering the top, and also only occasionally letting out his whole glorious instrument. I felt a little disappointed in what seemed a somewhat mono-chromatic delivery, which was decidedly NOT enhanced by harsh, almost entirely overhead lighting that kept his eyes invisible under the shadow of brow ridges, and a permanent scowl on his face. Nonetheless, the entire cycle, straight through without pause or applause, is an incredibly challenging undertaking, and Mr. Sly can be justly proud of his work today.

As can pianist Michael McMahon, another Canadian, who studied at the Schubert Institute in Vienna and the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Winterreise is really a dialogue, with the piano providing both the physical and emotional landscape through which the singer travels; and much of the music is extremely difficult. Mr. McMahon was nothing short of phenomenal, evoking the rustling of the linden, the crunching of the snow, and the crashing of the thunderstorm while never covering the singer. Bravissimo!

Bravo as well to the translations projected above the singer, exactly as sung and when sung, which the Opera still can’t seem to figure out (sigh). It’s not rocket science…

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival continues every day through Aug. 19 (except Aug. 9). Concerts are Friday through Monday and Wednesday evenings, and Tuesday through Thursday noons, in St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art; evenings starting Sunday Aug. 11 are in the Lensic. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to visit and find at least one of their wonderful offerings to attend. Of all the world-class art and music going on in Santa Fe, the Chamber Music Festival certainly stands with the best, while being available, accessible, and varied enough to have something for everyone.