Chamberfest Music Festival
Review by Bill Rankin
Nils Neubert (tenor)
Jason Cutmore (piano)
Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Februrary 24th 2018
The inaugural Alberta Chamberfest, a modest two-concert venture with a cabaret evening at a local bar and master classes on Sunday, had plenty of financial backing, based on the list of sponsors and patrons in the glossy program, but clearly the word didn’t get out that a new classical music opportunity was on offer. The vocal recital at Muttart Hall Saturday, not a particularly oppressive winter’s evening, must have made the performers feel much like the hurdy-gurdy man feels in the last song of the featured song cycle, Franz Schubert’s Winterreise:
“No one listens to him, No one notices him …”
The recital drew a measly 18 listeners, scattered about the 250-seat auditorium, including a couple of ticket-taking volunteers. Surely there are more than 18 people in Edmonton open to hearing a live performance of Schubert’s settings of Wilhelm Müller’s archly Romantic poem Winter Journey. The 24 songs tell the story of an itinerant loner trudging through a frigid winter landscape, bemoaning his lot as a lover whose wandering ways were rejected by his most recent conquest or her mother.
It could have been a mistake to listen to the legendary Deutsche Grammophon recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore’s rendition of Schubert’s 1828 composition, the second of Schubert’s three great song cycles, before attending Saturday’s concert. But the musicians performing gave a polished presentation of the work.
Tenor Nils Neubert, based in New York with several teaching affiliations, including the Manhattan and Juilliard schools, and pianist Jason Cutmore, founder of the Alberta Pianofest Society and artistic lead on this new project, presented a better than respectable rendition of this emotionally variegated vocal masterpiece.
Neubert began a bit tremulously; he did after all have a long, musical journey of his own ahead of him in this 80-minute piece. The tenor must negotiate a range of emotional effects, at times urgently relaying his depths of despair, his angst, even his anger, that he’s not getting all he wants with his over-wrought Romantic, unappreciated personality. The key to such a piece is to establish a convincing character for the storyteller, and given the small crowd, the invitation for intimacy was compelling.
Generally, Neubert captured the musical and thematic elements of each song assuredly, and he has a pleasant, if not particularly resonant, voice. He was most effective in the more introspective songs such as ‘Der Lindenbaum’, ‘Rast’ (‘Rest’), the quieter parts of ‘Frülingstraum’ (‘Dream of Spring’), the woeful ‘Der Greise Koft’ (‘The Old-Man’s Head’), and by the last third of the cycle, including the final, subdued ‘Der Leiermann’ (‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’), his sound grew warmer and the performance more emphatically personal.
This kind of music calls for a technique that is closer to musical conversation (including some artful yelling), but there are moments when a little operatic touch may elevate the message of the moment, and Neubert constrained himself in such moments. I would have enjoyed a little more robust a sound in a few of the song endings, but clearly, Neubert sang with a plan.
Cutmore is clearly an experienced collaborator, and his touch in the more delicate and the more forceful writing, and in the fluid, sensitive support he brought to the quieter elements of the vocal journey had their own assured musical character and understanding of the singer’s needs.
This modest first mini-festival, which organizers expect to continue biennially, offers programming that lovers of vocal recitals should be alert to. I’m sure that by the time the venture returns in 2020, more people will hear about it and attend.