Songs you’ve never heard of in a foreign language you rarely hear, performed by two artists who started rehearsing them two days earlier. What kind of a formula for success is that? This kind: When it was over, the audience demanded to hear some of it all over again.
That was the type of revelatory evening the audience at The Music Center at Strathmore experienced last Saturday night, as pianist Brian Ganz and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór joined together for an all-Chopin program.
The almost heart-attack-inducing scenario involved a major European soprano from Poland unable at the last minute to travel to the U.S. for a scheduled detour into Chopin’s little-known solo songs as part of Mr. Ganz’s decade-long project to perform every note that Chopin ever wrote. Even classical music connoisseurs usually don’t know Chopin’s songs because they’re very specifically Polish and aren’t sung in translation, because they don’t fit into larger schemes like opera plots, and because Chopin never intended for them to be published.
Part of what saved the day was Mr. Ganz’s surrounding programmatic concept for his solo piano performance, which emphasized some of the most song-worthy type of lyrical piano writing that Chopin ever came up with, and which could have stood on its own in a pinch.
But the evening truly belonged to Ms. Wór, who triumphed by stepping in and singing all 10 of the songs on the original program. Her distinctly deep-hued vocal color – some people call it chocolate while others call it velvet, or think of berry “notes” in a red wine – combined with her unusually wide bottom-to-top range to easily fill the hall unamplified. Ms. Wór also used her typically open and genuine facial expressions, plus a way of rotating the upper half of her torso across the arc of a musical phrase, to really make the songs a part of a character drama rather than just a vehicle for the performer.
Ms. Wór sang songs that “on paper” Chopin put into characters of both women and men of various ages as well as environments from river banks to saloons, with emotions from playful zest to deep melancholy. Somebody should have told the reticent Chopin that he had a knack for writing songs of just the right length, each one enough to involve the listener but never too much to exasperate the listener with a sensation that the composer himself was trying to show off rather than delineate a situation or personality.
Ms. Wór and Mr. Ganz together also used a number of stratagems to involve and invigorate a 21st century American audience around these 19th century rarities. Another performer might have reached for the academic sort of cliché that the rare Chopin songs were “important,” but that’s not Mr. Ganz’s style. Instead the two artists had the stage set up in the manner of a far more intimate recital, with a couple of nearby tables, a water bottle, and a chair for Mr. Ganz’s long-time collaborator and assistant Beverly Babcock to turn pages. They even used a different piano than Mr. Ganz used after intermission for a more formal presentation of one of Chopin’s biggest solo piano works.
Mr. Ganz then asked for a house lights at Strathmore to be turned halfway up and invited the audience to read along the English translations of the lyrics during the singing. He absolutely reassured the audience – Mr. Ganz’s manner is very calming and reassuring – that he and Ms. Wór would not be the slightest bit offended if audience members looked down at their programs rather than up at them during the songs. He then added that he and Ms. Wór would each take one song and speak the English translation in advance of the song’s performance.
That in turn led to one of the most telling moments of the entire evening, when Ms. Wór started to read the translation of the tenth song. As soon as she started speaking, there was a brief audible reaction at least near where I was sitting as the audience realized that she was an American. They were obviously thinking, reasonably enough from her slightly exotic name and the language of her performance, that she was Polish (as was the originally scheduled singer).
The explanation – which happily also reveals how she was able to perform this music with Mr. Ganz on almost no notice – is that Ms. Wór at first grew up in southern Poland but then came with her family to the U.S. when she was 11, and has advocated for these rare Polish songs as she described in my interview with her last year.
In the same salon-like stage set-up, Mr. Ganz played another little-known, posthumously published piece, Chopin’s brief Cantabile in B-Flat Major, followed by two of the Chopin nocturnes that best use the “bel canto” technique of long and flowing if sometimes elaborate melodies.
After the intermission, Mr. Ganz changed up the visual and aural environment in sync. Gone were the tables and chairs and even his personal wireless microphone in an effort to restore a very serious, large-hall environment where traditionally concert pianists do not engage in chit-chat with the audience. Sitting at a different Steinway grand piano with a more sort of big-boned sound, Mr. Ganz performed Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor.
Over the course of a half hour the sonata builds a frame of outer movements combining serious minor-key classical motives with major-key melodies reflective of a sort of early-autumnal sunlight, and inserts inner fast and slow movements that complete a sort of majestic tour finishing up on a note of glory. Notable in Mr. Ganz’s interpretation was a very wide range of dynamics – Mr. Ganz is a master-whisperer at the piano as well as one who’s also happy to let a Steinway grand show its chops – and a way of building subtle hills and valleys into rapid single-hand runs up the piano that complement the moment-to-moment ideas in the counterpoint in the other hand.
The concert finished up with two delightful encores, with Ms. Wór called back to sing again and Mr. Ganz performing the first of twelve studies from Chopin’s Opus 25 set of “études,” this one nicknamed the “Aeolian Harp” étude for the way it imitates air whistling through a kind of natural harp that is activated by wind. As it happens, both Mr. Ganz and Ms. Wór have long-scheduled individual dates with the sponsoring organization, the National Philharmonic, next month at Strathmore, giving audiences a chance to see them again – or for the first time.
Brian Ganz Plays Chopin: Bel Canto of the Piano featuring mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór and under the auspices of the National Philharmonic was performed on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD. Brian Ganz next performs with the National Philharmonic in works of Chopin and Mozart on February 6 and 7, 2016. Magdalena Wór next performs with the National Philharmonic in Vivaldi’s Gloria on February 20 and 21, 2016.
Pianist Brian Ganz and Mezzo-Soprano Magdalena Wór Team Up for Special Chopin Concert This Saturday Night at Strathmore by David Rohde.