The Friends of Vienna gave us an afternoon to remember on Sunday, when tenor David MacAdam sang Schubert’s tragic and beautiful song cycle “Die Schoene Muellerin.”
To connoisseurs this is a rare treat, which helps explain why the Friends of Vienna could compete directly with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and still fill their venue, the Unity Church. And MacAdam, a UB grad who lives and teaches in Ottawa, Ont., gave the music all he had.
He is both singer and performance artist, which is essential if you are going to tackle this masterpiece. A singer has to become the young man the poems and songs are about – the young man who follows a brook to a mill, finds a job there, falls in love with the boss’ daughter, wins her, loses her and then, finally, kills himself. (It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but when you hear it, it’s tremendously touching.)
In a poignant twist, MacAdam had sung the cycle 25 years ago at a Friends of Vienna concert. Even with a touch of gray, though, he entered immediately into the songs’ spirit. He smiled through the first few songs, about the lure of adventure. His voice was clear and expressive.
MacAdam has a lean, rangy, aesthetically handsome look that goes well with the Schubertian theme of wandering. As he sang the songs of a young man, he appeared to turn into one. His eyes grew dreamy and his voice took on a naive sweetness, particularly in the “does she love me?” song, “Der Neugierige.” He could switch dramatic gears, too, as he quoted the words of the miller’s daughter, or the miller himself.
Though he had a score, he hardly used it. He goofed a lyric now and then, and a couple of times, he missed a musical detail, but it was worth it to have that sense of spontaneity. He had an unaffected way of shaping his phrases. His gestures, too, were natural, and added a lot to the drama. Singing the final line of “Mein” – it means what you think it does, “the girl is mine” – MacAdam quietly clenched his fist, in a nice way, as if giving himself the thumbs up. Later, outraged that the miller maid falls in love with a hunter, he pulled off another vivid gesture, a gesture telling the hunter where he could go. Even knowing the tragedy that was in store, you had to laugh when you saw that. It was perfect.
The intimate venue helped you notice details like this. The performers are in the center of a semicircle of chairs, beneath a beautiful blue stained glass window. You were close enough to feel the syllables.
At the piano, Byron Sean was uneven. I heard that he had a cliffhanger travel situation, that he had flown in from California just that day. In any case, he was frequently unsure. Songs that required confidence and drive, like “Das Wandern” and the angry “Der Jaeger,” could have used more oomph. He also flew off the tracks completely several times and had to find his way back.
He clearly could have used more preparation and it was a pity, because he has a real feel for these transparent, poetic piano parts. Not everyone does. His articulation in “Wohin?” showed his beautiful legato tone, and he also showed a graceful awareness of the bass lines and inner voices.
To their immense credit, both gentlemen were pros. Sean always managed to land on his feet, and MacAdam stayed focused no matter what. The tragic last few songs were terribly, wonderfully sad. In the transcendent final song, MacAdam finished with lovely grace, and Sean, following, played the last piano notes with a stark, beautiful clarity.
They rewarded the warm applause with Schumann’s exquisite “Mondnacht.” I do not think they realized how appropriate that was. Schubert leaves us with thoughts of the moon and the sky, exactly what the Schumann song is about.
To start the concert, there was a surprise: Dimitri Lippe, a very promising young cellist from Amherst Senior High School, played the first movement from Elgar’s Cello Concerto. On piano was Kristen Pomietlarz. Lippe sang out Elgar’s melodies with freedom and strength. He is bound for Yale, though he’s not sure what he’s studying. Here’s hoping he keeps up his chops.