Prize In Hand, Recital On Hold, Singer Makes In-Person Debut At Last

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Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska performed with pianist Charles-Richard Hamelin. (Tienze Peng photo)

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Recital Society frequently showcases winners of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, an international prize for young musicians that seems inclined to reward fresh ideas, and even audacity, over the more commercial values that often win so many other contests.

Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska was a Borletti-Buitoni Trust winner in 2022, but there’s a backstory to her VRS debut with pianist Charles-Richard Hamelin. With a physical visit impossible in 2022, the VRS provided her with a virtual online recital from Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal — a placeholder as it were, and a promise for an in-person performance as soon as one could be arranged.

That date finally came on March 17 as the young mezzo embarked on her first North American concert tour, some eight concerts with pianist Howard Watkins for U.S. dates, and Hamelin for those in Canada. As Nikolovska explained from the stage, she and Hamelin knew each other as kids at music camp at Mount Orford, just a few miles north of the border between Vermont and Québec, but both have gone on to make their way in the musical world without further contact. It proved a happy reunion.

Mezzo Soprano Ema Nikolovska (Kaupo Kikkas photo)

Nikolovska’s voice is focused, rich, and velvety. Though she is at the beginning of her career, her sound is mature and her instinct for interpretation highly developed. Pianist Hamelin is already well known to Vancouver audiences, having played for the Vancouver Chopin Society and with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, but this was our first chance to hear him as a co-recitalist. His approach to the quartet of Schubert songs was tasteful with a hint of coolness and, where required, drama, though never extravagance.

Post Schubert, Hamelin was given a small showcase, the popular trifle “June” from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, designed to link into Margaret Bonds’ 1955 cycle Songs of the Seasons with words by Langston Hughes. Pianist, composer, theater woman, and activist, Bonds (1913-1972) studied with Florence Price in Chicago and was a teacher of Ned Rorem before moving to New York for the greater part of her creative life. It was there that her friendship with Hughes blossomed; after his death in 1967, she moved to Los Angeles, where she died at age 59.

Given such a remarkable life, full of events and struggles, I wish I liked her mid-century song cycle more. Songs of the Seasons — “Poème d’Automne,” “Winter Moon,” “Young Love in Spring,” and “Summer Storm”— is competently crafted, but Bonds’ art-song idiom could have been heard a half century earlier, save for the occasional rather self-conscious evocations of blues, spirituals, and Tin Pan Alley. While I found the songs tepid, Nikolovska and Hamelin offered a fine rendition in the grandest of grand styles.

The second half of the recital began with Hamelin on his own again, offering the first of Debussy’s Images oubliées. Nikolovska drifted on stage in the final moments of that enigmatic work (as she had done earlier with the Tchaikovsky), implicitly blurring the conventions of recital protocol, then began singing Debussy’s seven-song cycle Ariettes oubliées with texts by Paul Verlaine. This was first-rate Debussy, filled with color and nuance, great sensuality when required, insight and seriousness of purpose throughout.

Even better was to come. With the completion of the Debussy songs, Nikolovska explained what would round out the recital: a pair of songs by Nikolai Medtner (1879-1951): “Twilight,” Op. 24, No. 4, and “Sleeplessness,” Op. 37, No. 1, to be followed without a break by Nicolas Slonimsky’s Five Advertising Songs. She explained, somewhat superfluously, that Medtner songs rarely grace contemporary recitals; after hearing what the duo made of them, one could only want more. There is real quality to the two samples chosen, and an intensity in both the evocation of dusk and nature and meditations on mortality that suited Nikolovska’s vision to perfection, revisiting themes already exposed in the opening Schubert group.

Hamelin’s approach in Schubert songs was tasteful with a hint of coolness and drama. (Elizabeth Delage photo)

To launch directly from the dark complexities of Medtner to the exquisite frivolity of Slonimsky was a stroke of genius. Slonimsky (1894-1995), the compiler of that essential handbook for every writer of music criticism, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, created his songs just after he had moved to the U.S. in the 1920s. He used “found texts” from contemporary advertising copy as his lyrics — a gambit similar to Darius Milhaud’s found texts in the Catalogue de fleurs or Machines agricoles songs.

Slonimsky’s paean to the perfection of Utica sheets showed a whole new side to our mezzo-soprano: a comedienne prepared to do anything and everything for a joke. She brought Lucille Ball and Dame Patricia Routledge to mind, and the audience responded with titters, giggles, and, finally, belly laughs. I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget her crooning into the innards of the Hamburg Steinway in the manner of any number of contemporary songs, “Children Cry for Castoria,” or her dictator-like strut around the back of the instrument as she enumerated the virtues of Vauv Nose Powder.

The songs are fun on multiple levels — silliness and theatricality for sure, but also some very sly quotations of the great and the good of the earlier generation, like Rachmaninoff and Strauss. As it turned out, this wasn’t it for a remarkable afternoon; Nikolovska still had a trick or two up her sleeve. Her first encore celebrated her Macedonian heritage — she came to Canada as an infant and grew up in Toronto, mindful of, if distant from, her cultural homeland. A mid-century folk style piece of abiding popularity, “Zajdi, zajdi, jasno sonce” was beautifully arranged by the doyenne of Macedonian contemporary composers, Darija Andovska.

The poise, shining pride, and sense of identity burnished all we had heard earlier, defining a young mezzo-soprano with a great deal to say and the technique to say it with passion and eloquence. Her audience refused to budge, and as a parting gift she offered Debussy’s setting of Paul Bourget’s lyric “Beau soir” with its thoughts about twilight and mortality. That elegantly tied up all the afternoon’s musical and poetic threads — a remarkable tour-de-force recital and well worth the wait.