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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Issachah Savage Makes Auspicious Toronto Recital Debut

By Joseph So on October 11, 2016

Issachah Savage (Photo: Kristen Hoeberman)
Issachah Savage (Photo: Kristen Hoeberman)

Issachah Savage, tenor / Michael Shannon, piano at Walter Hall, Oct. 6.

The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto opened its 2016-17 recital season, its 119th (!) on October 6th at Walter Hall.  This august organization has presented many great artists in its storied history, to be sure. But I’m willing to bet that the recital given by American dramatic tenor Issachah Savage ranks high amongst the most memorable.

Toronto audiences first heard Mr. Savage when he replaced the scheduled tenor as Siegmund in the Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walkure in February 2015. In the performance I saw, his large, youthfully heroic sound was so impressive that he received a tremendous ovation at the end. We were lucky to have him back, this time in a song recital.

The demands of a Liederabend are quite different from grand opera. It’s a much more intimate setting — in this case the acoustically friendly Walter Hall that seats 500, as opposed to the 2000+ seat Four Seasons Centre.  With piano accompaniment, there’s no need to propel one’s voice over a large Wagnerian orchestra. And the audience benefits from the intimacy, able to catch every nuance of the text and the facial expressions of the singer.

That said, a song recital has its own unique challenges. A typical opera role may have a couple of arias, a duet, and some ensemble work. A typical song recital usually has around 20 songs plus encores, each telling a different story, often requiring many changes of mood over the course of the recital. With the focus on the soloist, there’s actually more pressure. There’s also a copious amount of text to memorize. Constructing a meaningful, cohesive song recital where all the pieces resonate as a whole requires real skill.

Savage had a very ambitious program planned, but due to time limitations, it was trimmed. Instead of the lengthy An die ferne Geliebte, it was replaced by Adelaide. The complete Dichterliebe, Op. 48 by Schumann remained, followed by three familiar Richard Strauss songs. The second half opened with Quilter’s Elizabethan Songs Op. 12, reduced from seven to four. Similarly, two songs were cut from the five-song set of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs (1950). The recital ended with three Spirituals, as planned.

His pianist was COC pianist/coach Michael Shannon. The two met when they were in the San Francisco Opera Merola training program. This WMCT recital was a welcome reunion. The program opened with “Adelaïde” one of Beethoven’s loveliest creations. Savage sang with a big, clarion sound. It’s also a true tenor, without the baritonal timbre one sometimes encounters in heroic voices. His German diction, while not perfect, was very good, which the audience was able to follow in the substantial insert in the program.

With Dichterliebe, he wisely scaled back his volume so as not to overwhelm some of the more delicate pieces like the opening “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.”  Even reigned in, one is aware that it’s a very big voice, meant to be heard in large concert halls and opera houses rather than in intimate recital stages. That said, I confess that I do like a big sound, such as the high A in “Ich grolle nicht.”  At full throttle, in the final phrases of “Heimliche Aufforderung”, his sound was amazing. He concluded the first half with Strauss’s perennial favourite for high voices, “Zueignung.” At the words “Habe Dank!” he bowed ever so slightly to the audience, the first time I’ve ever seen that and it was a touching gesture. Michael Shannon was ever the supportive collaborative pianist, and in the few solo passages, as in the end of Dichterliebe or the technical flourish of Zueignung, he played with the requisite technique, lyricism and poetry.

The second half was made up of songs in English by British and American composers. First came four by Roger Quilter. Perhaps with opening jitters over, or maybe singing in his native tongue, Savage sounded and looked more relaxed. He wasn’t as tied to the score which he used throughout the concert. I know that we often disapprove of singers using the score in recitals. Often, having a score is like a security blanket for a singer. Even the greatest singers – I could name names but I won’t – I’ve seen used a score. This is particularly true of opera singers who don’t often sing recitals. In an ideal world, yes – I’d prefer a singer do it from memory. But ultimately, it’s what comes out of the throat that’s most important. My feeling is that I’d rather see a singer relaxed in his/her music-making, and not have to worry about the next words.

The Quilter songs were terrific. “Weep you no more” was sung in a lovely mezza voce. “My Life’s Delight” had the requisite joy. The pieces were all sung in a direct, warm, heartfelt manner. With Canadian Thanksgiving just around the corner, I was sad that Copland’s “Simple Gifts” was cut. This Shaker song by Elder Joseph Brackett in the 19th century always put a lump in my throat. I hope someday I’ll get to hear Issachah Savage sing it.  The final group was three Spirituals, the first one, “A City Called Heaven” was sung A capella. What can I say, except that the music and the text seemed to come from his soul…

The WMCT audience is sophisticated, knowledgeable, and always appreciative of good singing. It’s also a rather reserved audience. So it was stunning to see many of them giving the two artists repeated standing ovations. I know this is still very early in the 2016-17 concert season, but I think this recital has set the bar very high, and it may just be the most memorable of the current season.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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