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SCRUTINY | From The Heart: Ema Nikolovska And Charles Richard-Hamelin Offer Unique Program At Koerner Hall

By Joseph So on March 26, 2024

Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin in recital at Koerner Hall (Photo courtesy of Koerner Hall)
Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin in recital at Koerner Hall (Photo courtesy of Koerner Hall)

Songs by Schubert, Bonds, Debussy, Medtner, Slonimsky, Sarievski; Tchaikovsky: “June” from The Seasons, Op. 37b. Ema Nikolovska, mezzo-soprano; Charles Richard-Hamelin, piano. Koerner Hall, March 24, 2024.

As I was leaving Koerner Hall Sunday afternoon, having attended the recital given by Macedonian Canadian mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska and French-Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, I couldn’t help but felt that I had witnessed something extraordinary.

A bit of background for those not familiar with the singer. Born in Skopje, Macedonia and raised in Toronto, Nikolovska started taking violin lessons at four(!) at the Royal Conservatory of Music, graduating from The Glenn Gould School in 2015. Singing was also in her blood — she joined the Toronto Children’s Chorus at the age of ten. She started taking serious singing lessons from Helga Tucker at 16.

After graduation, Nikolovska went to London and earned a Master’s in Voice at the Guildhall. She was named a BBC New Generation Artist, as well as the recipient of the prestigious Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. Her operatic credits include performances at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, and Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre in London.

Earlier this year, Nikolovska made her COC debut in The Cunning Little Vixen. In my review, I mentioned how impressed I was by her “bright-voiced, endearing” Fox. I went to the concert Sunday expecting a typical recital featuring two very fine musicians. What I got was a veritable tour-de-force, a young singer putting her unique, personal stamp on a recital in such a way that few young singers would dare to try.

Fearless and inimitable, Ema Nikolovska opened her artistic world and invited everyone in.

The recital opened with her speaking to the audience in a most heartfelt manner. She and Richard-Hamelin began with four well known Schubert songs. Nikolovska delivered the songs with focused tone, a rather cool timbre and little vibrato. Her recital style is certainly a departure from opera, but fine on the recital stage. Supported by the sensitive pianism of Richard-Hamelin and the excellent Koerner Hall acoustics, you could hear every word. A fine start.

L-R: Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska (Photo: Kaupo Kicks); Ema Nikolovska and Charles Richard-Hamelin in recital at Koerner Hall (Photo courtesy of Koerner Hall); Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin (Photo: Julien Faugere)
L-R: Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska (Photo: Kaupo Kicks); Ema Nikolovska and Charles Richard-Hamelin in recital at Koerner Hall (Photo courtesy of Koerner Hall); Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin (Photo: Julien Faugere)

It was followed by a brief piano solo, “June” from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, a brilliant choice given its very singable melody. With Richard-Hamelin’s exquisite playing, he indeed made the piano sing. Without a pause, the two launched seamlessly into “Poème d’Automne,” the first of four, similarly themed “Songs of the Seasons” by African American composer Margaret Bonds. These songs are quite jazzy, which Nikolovska delivered with the requisite style and feeling.

These pieces are often sung by high voices, so occasionally Nikolovska’s mezzo was stretched by the high tessitura. A couple of the songs appears to have been transposed down for the occasion. No matter, Nikolovska gave her all and the cycle was striking and enjoyable.

Richard-Hamelin started the second half with a short piano piece by Debussy, followed by the composer’s exquisite Ariettes Oubliées, a cycle of six beautiful, perfumed pieces, here stylishly sung by the mezzo, with a full palette of tone colours, matched only by a wonderful lightness of touch from the pianist. Nikolovska offered beautiful mezza voce as well as plenty of volume and power as needed.

Then it was two pieces by Russian piano virtuoso/composer Nikolai Medtner. Famous for his “finger breakers”, I didn’t realize that he also composed beautiful songs, such as “Twilight,” which incidentally can be found on YouTube sung by Nikolovska, at the iconic Wigmore Hall, no less.

A highlight of the recital was Nikolovska’s funny analysis of the last cycle, the Five Advertising Songs by Nicolas Slonimsky. She really let her hair down figuratively with this group, showing to all her irrepressible and funny side. I wonder how many young singers in the serious classical music business would dare to shriek the opening line of “Children Cry for Castoria”? My guess is likely next to none! Nikolovska shows that her stage persona is larger-than-life and she’s not afraid to show it. When an artist has the requisite vocal and musical chops to back up a big personality like she does, I venture to say she’ll go far.

Through it all, Richard-Hamelin was a stalwart collaborative pianist of the best kind, showing his marvellous pianism and offering rock solid support to the soloist, and secure enough to let the singer take the centrestage and the lion’s share of the spotlight. To him, I have only my sincerest respect and admiration.

One final thought — I was struck by how beautiful the thematic program was put together. (Read our interview with Ema, where she talks about putting it together, here.) This is a sterling example of the kind of thoughtful programming so common in Europe and in the UK, but for some reason rarely encountered on this side of the pond.

Currently on tour with this program, Nikolovska and Richard-Hamelin can be heard at the Vancouver Playhouse in Vancouver, Bourgie Hall in Montreal, and Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre, Ottawa.

A hugely enjoyable show, catch it if you can.

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Joseph So
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