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Choral and Vocal
A GRAND DIVA'S SHIMMERING AND PROVOCATIVE RECITAL IN WEILL HALL
by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Thursday, January 11, 2024
RECITAL REVIEW
MasterCard Performance Series / Sunday, September 29, 2013
Ruth Ann Swenson, soprano. Warren Jones, piano

Soprano Ruth Ann Swenson

RUTH ANN SWENSON TRIUMPHS IN EFFERVESCENT WEILL HALL DEBUT RECITAL

by Vaida Falconbridge and Mary Beard
Sunday, September 29, 2013

It’s always a treat to be in the audience when a famous soprano is performing with stellar artistry, exuding warmth and confidence, as it was when Ruth Ann Swenson sang Sept. 29 to an enthusiastic, mostly-full crowd in Weill Hall that clearly included lots of fans, students and friends. She performed with pianist Warren Jones and the pair were greeted walking onto the stage with an ovation that went on for almost a minute.

There was no particular theme in Sunday’s recital and it seemed Ms. Swenson chose repertoire that she personally loves, showcasing her formidable technique and gleaming tone, and that she knew would please her audience. Many of the great composers of vocal music were featured, with song sets in Italian, French, English and German, opera arias by Mozart and Handel, and venturing all the way into Great American Songbook standards.

Famed as a bel canto specialist throughout her career, Ms. Swenson started the program with five Italian art songs by Bellini and Verdi. The Bellini selections, “Il fervido desiderio” and “Almen se non poss’io,” were lovely openers, light and easy, rich and warm, but the Verdi songs were especially noteworthy. “E la vita” featured a lovely, very short melody—a perfect little gem. “La seduzione” was a gorgeous song, gorgeously sung, and almost operatic in the way it portrayed the dramatic arc of a love story that turned into a tragedy about a young woman seduced and betrayed. The singer expressed the touching drama without ever compromising her resonant instrument, and could always be heard (unfortunately not always true of singers in Weill), even on soft pianissimo notes. “Stornello” was a sassy, defiant little showpiece, with a well-sung trill topping it off, showing Ms. Swenson’s spunky, capricious side in this delightful song.

Idomeneo was Mozart’s first opera seria, with a plot based on an ancient Greek story that takes place on the isle of Crete shortly after the Trojan War, and written when he was 24 years old. Ms. Swenson performed the highly emotional aria assigned to the character Ilia, singing “Quanti mi siete intorno…Padre, germani, addio,” full of dramatic colors and shadings. In short, a diva vehicle, showing her ability to be emotionally expressive of the despair of the song and yet also very agile.

Collaborating with the soprano was the “magnificent pianist Warren Jones,” as Ms. Swenson introduced him from the stage. In a departure from traditional vocal recital format, Mr. Jones performed at this juncture Three Pieces from Brahms’ Op. 118. Mr. Jones began with two intermezzi, passionate and sensitive, sweeping us into full-blown heart-wrenching romanticism. He ended the set with “Ballade” which was fiery and exciting, powerful but effortless, and with a strong bass as the piece demands.

In the second half of the program, Mr. Jones elegantly performed four of the Op. 67 Chopin Mazurkas, in G, G Minor, C and A Minor, which were found on Chopin’s piano after his death, and the playing showed Mr. Jones’ poetic heart and his ability to make the piano bid his expressive will. One interesting detail in regards to Mr. Jones playing was that he left the piano’s music stand lying flat, with the vocal/piano scores on top of it, rather than the usual upright position one ordinarily sees. His page turning was so smooth as to be almost imperceptible. Quite a feat!

Closing out the first half of the program were two arias from Handel’s opera Semele, completely contrasting in mood and dramatic thrust. “O Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” featured Ms. Swenson’s perfect sustained notes and legato melismas, periodically ornamented with clean, well-articulated trills, and several lovely floating high notes. In “Myself I shall adore” Miss Swenson let loose with a very playful rendition, thoroughly delighting the audience and causing laughter more than once. Making clever use of a hand mirror as a prop while delivering fusillades of staccato patterns, runs, and trills in a thrilling agility showcase, she sang the racing coloratura sections with total clarity and accuracy without resorting to “h’s” or glottal attacks. Her ability to sing such clear coloratura has always been one of her greatest vocal talents.

Three French chansons opened the second half. Hahn’s “L’heure exquise” is a haunting little masterpiece, yet full of challenges for the singer, with long sustained phrases and large interval leaps of a sixth up into soft, shimmering, high notes. More than one person was wiping their eyes after this song. “Le Soir” was a charming romantic miniature by the opera composer Thomas, and Bizet’s “Ouvre ton coeur” was a flashy, Spanish-flavored virtuoso confection for both soprano and piano.

The German set featured three of Strauss’ better-known songs, but songs Ms. Swenson was performing for the first time: Allerseelen, Breit uber mein Haupt, and Zueignung. All three dealt with different aspects of love, and were sung with great feeling, conviction, and beauty of tone. Her expressive German consonants never broke the flow of the legato lines.

Nearing the end of the program, the artists brought to life several selections from the Great American Songbook, including works by Barer and Martin, Berlin, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, all arranged for the singer by pianist, composer and vocal coach Richard Riccardi. Mr. Riccardi was in the audience and was given an ovation. The arrangements were absolutely spectacular, a virtuosic classical-jazz hybrid and sheer delight, like silvery filigree weaving in and around the vocal line. Ms. Swenson displayed great versatility in this group, changing colors in her voice to meet the more contemporary demands of this style. Her lower range in these songs was remarkably full and rich, with absolutely no loss of body in the tone, as can often happen in higher voices after singing for extended periods of time.

Lehar’s “Love, Live Forever” from the operetta Paganini, including a stellar high D as the penultimate note, provided the appropriate grand ending to a satisfying afternoon with two admired and popular artists. After receiving several bouquets, the duo was called back for an encore. Ms. Swenson sang Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the movie Wizard of Ozto a rapt audience, frozen by the plaintive purity of her sound.

Sonoma County has been blessed with many vocal recitals since Weill opened last year, and this one ranks among the best. Warren Jones is a master pianist because one never thinks of him as ‘accompanying,’ but rather one of two characters in an ever-changing series of dramas, and who completely trust each other musically, and who obviously love making music together. What Ms. Swenson can do with her vocal instrument and masterful technique, in such a free, heart-stirring way, is exceptional. One left the recital not just impressed with the performers' artistry, but also feeling joyfully expanded inside, having witnessed something very special.