By Susan Elliott
NEW YORK — Two years ago, Paul Appleby, a rapidly rising young (32) American tenor, was invited by Carnegie Hall to participate in its 125th anniversary 125 Commissions Project. He was told he could choose any composer he wished, and with no hesitation, he now reports, he turned to Matthew Aucoin, a rapidly rising young (26) American composer whose C.V. reads like that of someone thrice his age: two operas already premiered by Boston’s American Repertory Theater and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, both conducted by him, with a new one on the way for the Met; new work performed by Yo-Yo Ma; first ever composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles Opera; guest conductor with the likes of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; youngest person ever to be added to the Met Opera conducting roster; pianist; essayist; etc.
Aucoin chose poems of James Merrill (1926-95) to set as a song cycle for Appleby, and the two premiered the results, Merrill Songs, on March 16 in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. Also on the program were songs by Schumann, Villa-Lobos, Wolf, Berlioz, and Franz Lachner.
Equally at home handling the role of Brian, one of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera, and Mozart’s Tamino, Appleby will soon make his Met role debut as Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail under James Levine. The tenor was an endearingly earnest presence on this occasion, both in his easy, pre-song comments from the stage and in his vocalism. There is no showboating; vibrato is saved for moments of intensity. Unlike some of his peers, this tenor does not sacrifice tone for volume, although one could argue that softer passages reveal his most distinctive and striking sound — warm, like honey.
Appleby is any composer’s dream come true in that he completely gets out of the way of the message and lets the music carry it. If that sounds like a simple, straightforward approach, it is not; this is a voice of enormous flexibility, even across the entire range, applied with deep intelligence.
All of which was put to good use in properly showcasing Aucoin’s Merrill Songs.
Merrill – of the fabulously wealthy Merrill Lynch axis – grew up a prepster, summering in the Hamptons on a 30-acre estate with several townhouses to come home to in Manhattan. He moved on to Greece and Stonington, CT, as an adult, producing essays, plays, and mostly poetry, for which he won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize. A gay man known to shy from publicity, Merrill in the last 20 years of his life grew inordinately fond of Ouija board predictions, many of which are incorporated in his 560-page tome The Changing Light at Sandover.
“Sonnet from Sandover” is among the six poems in Merrill Songs:
And here was I, or what was left of me.
Feared and rejoiced in, chafed against, held cheap,
A strangeness that was us, and was not, had
All the same allowed for its description,
And so brought at least for me these spells of odd,
Self-effacing balance. Better to stop
While we still can.
Here seeming to describe encroaching death, or at least old age, Aucoin’s chosen settings collectively form a mini life cycle, from a “wrinkled, baby hand” that pulls the plug and empties the ocean in the first poem (“A Downward Look”) to unrequited love (“The Kimono”) to nature’s demise at man’s hand (“Grass”) and finally that “self-effacing balance” of approaching death.
Aucoin writes in his program note that Merrill “remains underrated” (Aucoin is a poet and librettist himself), pointing out, among other admirable traits, his onomatopoeic use of language. In turn, the piano part of his cycle — which he played himself — is reflective of the text, a gentle, impressionist tinkling at the top of the keyboard to connote a rising river or scattering clouds, and loud, explosive block chords underlining phrases like “flung in blind defiance backwards.” Thus, the vocal line is left to carry the emotional reflections of the circumstances, rather than the circumstances themselves. There is melody and lyricism, yet — and especially in juxtaposition with its partnering instrument — the line is fresh, contemporary, edgy yet never awkwardly angular, tender but never cloyingly so.
If Merrill Songs was a challenge for its sheer newness, the rest of the program was even more of one for its familiarity — how to make repertoire well-traveled by legends like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sound new, or at least bring something distinctive to it. With James Levine’s right-hand man Ken Noda at the piano, Appleby succeeded, especially in the nine Schumann Liederkreis, Op. 24, finessing hushed melancholy and forlorn ruminations over lost love as well as brief, punchy descriptions of a heart gone mad with anticipatory palpitations. Appleby had no trouble achieving the variety of moods Schumann calls for within this cycle (which was written in 1840, the year he managed to turn out no fewer than 120 songs).
Similarly, the tenor ably argued his pre-performance case for Villa-Lobos’ uncanny ability to fuse his country’s native rhythms and popular styles within the classical context. He prefaced the six selections from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été with a gentle reminder that the piano versions came first, and the far more common orchestral versions second, adding that he actually preferred the more percussive piano part. Besides, with Noda on the case, who needs an orchestra?
The evening opened with “Das Fishermädchen,” by Franz Lachner (1803-90), in which Appleby delivered the line “Come to me and sit down, We’ll cuddle hand in hand” with such warmth as to set the tone of reassuring intimacy for the rest of the night. He closed with two encores — the Scottish folk song “O Waly, Waly” (“The Water Is Wide”), arranged by Benjamin Britten, and at the other end of the spectrum, Lensky’s Aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin — and left the cheering audience wanting more.
Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of MusicalAmerica.com.