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Proms Chamber Music 7: Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Sikich (piano)
27 Aug 2018

A brilliant celebration of Bernstein & co. from Wallis Giunta at Cadogan Hall

At the 2018 International Opera Awards, Irish-Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta was named ‘Young Singer of the Year’, having been awarded the same title by The Arts Desk in 2017, a year which also saw her pick up the ‘Breakthrough Artist in UK Opera’ award at the What’s on Stage Opera Awards. At this Cadogan Hall lunchtime chamber recital she was making her Proms debut, and Giunta gave an assured, audience-winning performance which suggested that such accolades are more than deserved and that it won’t be long before she’s invited back.

Proms Chamber Music 7: Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Sikich (piano)

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Wallis Giunta

Photo credit: Dario Acosta

 

But, in what genre, who would hazard a guess, given Giunta’s evident passion and affinity for, and accomplishment within, anything from opera to blues, art song to jazz, music theatre to cabaret? On the evidence of this Chamber Prom, the mezzo-soprano doesn’t simply sing, she truly performs: every textual line is inhabited vocally, gesturally, physically, and the characters to which she gives voice, spirit and presence are immediately, viscerally and compelling ‘real’. Her tone - high, middle, or low - is simply gorgeous, though it was the full, flickering hues of the middle that I found most stunning; and, if in this recital, Giunta didn’t have to call upon an enormously extended range, then she was even from top to bottom, and seemed happy to slip out of her natural comfort-zone when music and drama called - and to incorporate all manner of spoken and sung sounds, sound-effects and percussive gestures as the repertoire demanded.

The English texts of the songs by Bernstein and his contemporaries, and also that set by Bushra el-Turk (b.1982) whose BBC commission offered us a song inspired by and in homage to Bernstein, were crisply enunciated, no matter how racy the rhythms or tongue-twisting the consonants. Indeed, versatility might be considered the quintessence of Giunta’s art, and in this regard she seems to have found the perfect accompanist in Michael Sikich, whose studies at the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Schubert Institute in Baden, and with Peter Bithell and Julius Drake at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he received the Piano Accompaniment Prize, have been complemented by mentoring in jazz piano by Barry Green at the GSMD and working as a bandleader and pianist for the jazz group Cut Time. Such experience and range resulted here in accompaniments characterised by a soft but sure touch, precise but animated rhythms, and a latent friskiness that always supported and never overpowered the singer.

In Aaron Copland’s ‘Pastorale’ (composed in 1921, first performed the following year, but not published until 1979), Giunta’s silvery tone effortlessly served the simple beauty of the unornamented melodic line. The setting of Edward Powys Mather’s ‘Song’ (translated from the Kafiristan) eschews any ‘eastern’ mannerism, instead fore-grounding the innocence faith in the joy that love can bring, a quality evinced by Giunta’s floating octave rise: “Since you love me and I love you/ The rest matters not.” The song seems to speak of a belief in ideal love, which is given a sensual twisty in the dusky harmonies of the closing repetition, “I love you”, and of a heavenly bliss which here was exquisitely captured by Sikich’s three pianissimo notes at the close, which dissolved gently into the air.

Perhaps Giunta tapped into her Irish roots in ‘Sea-Snatch’; it’s an ancestry she shares with the composer of the Hermit Songs Op.29, Samuel Barber, who in this song set lines from Sean O’Faolain’s poem - in which the poet cries out to heaven as the sea brings turmoil and death. As the wind consumed and swallowed the ailing poet, and the ship’s timber was devoured by “crimson fire”, Giunta’s melismatic appeal to “O King of the starbright Kingdom of Heaven!” burned with fervour and stirring potency. In contrast, in ‘The Monk and His Cat’ Giunta purred with the self-satisfied contentment of the theological scholar who finds peace and fulfilment in the company of his “white Pangur”.

Two songs by Marc Blitzstein let Giunta off the leash. Though her hands were clasped, as if in prayer, for the opening self-introduction by the “Victorian and modest maid”, the subsequent revelation that, despite her neatness and discreteness, what she really loves is “LECHERY/ Simple LECHERY”, released wry and riotous emotions and Giunta relished the lascivious ‘maid’s’ indiscretions and confessions - I was put in mind of the insouciant defiance and rejection of archetype of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Ruined Maid’. The opening reflections of ‘Stay in My Arms’ were poignant and Giunta suggested a universal relevance beyond the song’s romantic confines: “In this great city, is there no peaceful, pretty place where noise is not?/ A little quiet, somewhere amid this riot, would help things a lot.” The subsequent varied sentiments of the unfolding stanzas were vividly communicated.

Sondheim’s ‘The Miller’s Son’, from A Little Night Music, seems purposefully designed to trip up the singer who dares to tackle it - “It’s a wink and a wiggle/ And a giggle on the grass/ And I’ll trip the light fandango./ A pinch and a diddle/ In the middle of what passes by.” - but Giunta sailed through as if it were a breeze, literally enacting every gesture from the “flings of confetti” to the “rustle in the hay”.

The mezzo-soprano exhibited similar adeptness as an enunciator in the opening four Bernstein songs which form La bonne cuisine. She pattered pianississimo through Émile Dumont’s recipe for ‘Plum Pudding’, her clarity showcased here and in the following ‘Queues de Boeuf’ by Sikich’s finely etched unison accompaniments. ‘Tavouk Gueunksis’ lilted louchely to an oriental pulse and tint, Sikich’s percussive ostinati clattering edgily, while the instructions how to cook a ‘Rabbit at Top Speed’ had a purposefully, sometimes manic, drive, coupled with occasional lyrical expanse à la Candide. Giunta displayed a flawless control not just of enunciation but also of intonation and rhythm, and she crowned her vocal-culinary demonstration with a flamboyant air kiss: “mix them together … and serve!”

Bushra El-Turk’s ‘Crème Brûlée on a Tree’ was even more visually demonstrative and Giunta didn’t let her need for a score here - the rest of the recital was sung from memory - inhibit her one iota; indeed, I longed to know whether the facial tics, slaps, claps, puffed and pouting cheeks, shoulder twitches and nose-pinching had been prescribed by El-Turk or were Giunta’s own invention. Spoken text, whooping repetitions and explosive commands directed at Sikich - who lurched finely through the perfected custard’s jiggles and wobbles - were capped with the nonchalant declaration: “You’ll notice a few nooks and crannies on the surface. That’s fine.” I suspect that a few brave singers may attempt to show their own gastronomic prowess in encores to come …

On Saturday evening we’d had the opportunity, courtesy of John Wilson and the LSO, to enjoy Bernstein’s On the Town , the foundations of which were laid in the 1944 ballet Fancy Free. Set in a bar, the ballet had opened with a juke box playing the blues number ‘Big Stuff’ - a song subsequently recorded by Billie Holiday. Giunta’s middle-range had a wonderful silky warmth which was complemented by Sikich’s lazy, unassuming accompaniment; and, with the nous of a doyenne of musical theatre, the mezzo’s final statement, “it may be that you’re the guy”, diminished with sensual invitation, as her unwavering gaze pierced the Cadogan Hall audience.

There was a Bernstein ‘novelty’ too: Conch Town, Bernstein’s never-published 1941 ballet - which would provide material for both Fancy Free and West Side Story - in a two-piano and percussion form as completed by Tom Owen and Nigel Simeone in 2009, and here receiving its UK premiere. Sikich was joined by pianist Iain Farrington, timpani (and sometime tambourine player) Owen Gunnell and percussionist Toby Kearney, and the quartet convincingly shaped the dance episodes, conveying a sense of an evolving narrative during which two beat-bending rhythmic ideas maintained a toe-tapping presence. The 3+3+2+2+2 pattern, announced quite sparsely and unobtrusively, with a gentle Cuban tint, might have alerted listeners to the forthcoming appearance of this motif in a more well-known melodic guise, explicated in an anecdote by Stephen Sondheim about the composition of West Side Story: ‘Lenny came back from a vacation in Puerto Rico and said that he'd come across a wonderful dance rhythm called the huapango, and he said, “And I have an idea for a tune.” And he went to the piano and he started going “Ya-ta-ta ya-ta-ta tum-tum-tum” with the idea of alternating between six and three, six and three ... And, many years later, a friend of mine found in a box of Lenny's papers an unproduced ballet he’d written called Conch Town [composed in 1941], and the friend said, “Look on page 17.” And there, on page 17, was “Ya-ta-ta ya-ta-ta tum-tum-tum.” He made up that whole story so he could use that old tune and, of course, I fell for it.’ [1]

The pianos’ running melodies chased each other with a propelling sway, and a contrasting section of similar-motion chains provided a temporary still centre above with Sikich’s high right hand indulged Bernstein’s melodic explorations with quasi-improvisatory grace. The musical editors demonstrated attention to orchestrational detail worthy of the originator, the climax of the ‘America’ prototype being coloured with a tambourine flourish - produced successively by hand, one timpani sticks and, at the last, two.

Giunta and Sikich closed their recital with Bernstein’s ‘What a Movie’ (from the opera Trouble in Tahiti which the composer later adapted into A Quiet Place): the perfect medium for the singer to confirm both her operatic and music theatre instincts. She acted with aplomb - as ‘Dinah’ lamented the banality of the “Technicolor twaddle” she’d endured, and imagined real ‘trouble in Tahiti’ - and relished the declamatory, lyrical and explosive vocalism equally.

Sondheim provided the encore: ‘Send in the Clowns’. As Giunta seemed to quickly brush aside a tear, I glanced around the Cadogan Hall. She wasn’t the only one.

Claire Seymour

Proms Chamber Music 7: Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano), Michael Sikich (piano)

Bernstein - ‘La bonne cuisine’; Bushra El-Turk - ‘Crème Brûlée on a Tree’ (BBC commission, world premiere); Bernstein - Fancy Free ‘Big Stuff’, ‘Conch Town’ (completed by Tom Owen and Nigel Simeone, UK premiere); Copland - ‘Pastorale’; Barber - ‘Sea Snatch’ (from Hermit Songs Op.29), ‘The Monk and His Cat’; Marc Blitzstein - ‘Modest Maid’, ‘Stay in My Arms’; Sondheim - ‘The Miller’s Son’ (fromA Little Night Music); Bernstein - ‘What a Movie!’ (from Trouble in Tahiti).

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 27th August 2018.



[1] Recounted in Andrew Milner, ‘More Insights from Sondheim’, The Sondheim Review, Summer 2012: 41.

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