Thursday, April 2, 2015


Eric Owens cried openly during the "Schubertiade" presented on March 25 by The Philadelphia Camber Music Society in the intimate Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center.

He burst into tears during Fahrt zum Hades (The Journey to Hell). He started to sob in the quiet section where the dead person whispers "Neither bright sun shines nor is starlight seen nor even a song can be heard." Tears rolled down his face in Prometheus and again he had to fight sobs during Gruppe aus dem Tarturus, especially in the second strophe, "Schmertz verzerret ihr Gesicht"... "Sorrow deforms their faces...".

In a time when few classical artists show much emotion ever, even on stage in opera (Opera Stars for example now study "The poker face" as a technique) such a display was shocking. 

After intermission, Owens emerged with a music stand and seemed very upset. He addressed the audience. He said, "we lost colleagues today in an airplane accident, Maria Radner, and Oleg Bryjak. I knew Maria Radner who was lost with her husband and child. She was a special soul. I thought I'd keep the music just in case I get a little distracted. "

He sang two familiar songs, Ganymed, an equivocal text by Goethe, which has an aspect of sexual ambiguity about it for Ganymed was a beautiful boy abducted by Zeus. But for Owens it became a song about the soul after death, He stressed "Ich komme, Ich komme! Wohin? Ach, Wohin?" "I come, I come but to where, ah to where?" The last strophe, often done as a comfort, was instead mere speculation as Owens stressed it, that there was perhaps something after life, "a loving father." He didn't lighten his full, rich tone or move quickly through, singing not as a boy ascending but as a man trying to believe that maybe there is somewhere a comfort. The great song Der Wanderer followed. It is a song about one who has left home, perhaps forced out, to find himself a stranger without an anchor. Owens' rich sound and slow exploration had a tremendous heavy sadness.

At the end of that group he moved his music stand all the way to the lip of the stage, saying "I want to be as close to you as possible", and cried through An die Musik -- On music. "Du holde Kunst", thou holy art, I thank you for taking me to a better world... The song is often somewhat sentimental and I've seen it done in a simpering way but not here, as Owens appeared to be reaching out to embrace all of us in the paradox of music itself, suspended time in forward motion, not a comfort or a distraction, but a way of being, at least for a few moments in an awful world where we will all suffer and then have nothing to show for that but death. 

I've seen many of the great and very good song recitalists who emerged after World War Two, some late in the day. I've even been at and indeed, been a participant (as a notably stumbly pianist) at some master classes. Virtually none of the teachers I played for as a weird teenager, and certainly none of those famous people whose master classes I attended under one pretext or another would really have endorsed Owens. They would have suggested that he hit one aspect of the texts too hard, that showing emotion to that degree was inappropriate, that it was important to evoke tears in the audience and not oneself in a sad song, and never to be indifferent to irony and ambiguity. All true.

I've certainly seen famous Lieder singers who obviously loved what they were singing and were invested in it. Two of the most moving were Hans Hotter (who I was able to hear in two recitals a year or so before he retired at 80) and Gerard Souzay who gave his entire being to a song. Even Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who I often call Evil Incarnate, since she was an information officer in the Gestapo, was fully engaged in what she sang and had the gift of projecting with her eyes mysterious, complex emotions.

But I have rarely been moved in the way Owens moved me. Perhaps it is death getting closer and closer to me that caused me to understand the lament in his singing, supported by an unhistrionic, utterly sincere commitment to his particular vision on this evening.

In any case, the audience adored him, wept along eventually, and in Maria Huang he had an accompanist who obviously could alter what I suspect they had prepared and support him in the moment, without losing focus and command.

Otherwise, the mostly familiar program was shared with Susanna Phillips who forgot the words to "Gretchen am Spinnrade" of all things and seemed unsure as to how to perform the songs, tending to act them and play with tempos, also not in easy voice. It was great to hear "Auf dem Strom" with Jennifer Montone's gorgeous horn, and the concert ended with "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen" with Riccardo Morales, the phenomenal clarinettist once with the Met orchestra, now with the Philadelphia orchestra, playing with incredible sweetness and charm.

Owens is very versatile (professional level oboist and conductor as well as imposing bass-baritone) and has a magnificent sound. The concert had been postponed from early January when Owens was evidently having some physical/personal problems and Phillips I suspect had been better prepared then. She has a beautiful voice but appeared to be having technical difficulties, and her concentration was off. Myra Huang was possibly 
too indulgent with the soprano (although she may have deferred to Phillips who pushed and pulled at tempos and dragged the end of Gretchen -- after she had consulted the music -- unconscionably). Perhaps she too was distracted by the deaths of colleagues. 

Time moves so quickly that this has probably lost its relevance. The co-pilot of the plane, possibly suicidal, possibly concerned about an eye problem that would cost him his job, described in many American outlets as "depressed" (as though depression prompts murder/suicide) locked the cockpit door and crashed the plane killing 150 people. Indiana passed a virulently anti-LGBT law but as of today has watered it down following quick and extensive national backlash. There was more evidence of religious repression in Russia as regards opera. 

But I wanted to describe a concert that occurred at the Kimmel Center in the intimate Perelman Theater by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. That's among the best musical programs in Purgatory transitioning to hell, Philly. Miles Cohen is the Artistic Director. 

There had been some doubt about whether the concert would happen at this later date, but according to him, Owens had become available and since he is from Philadelphia and even went to the city's historic high school, Central (as did my twin brother, many years before), then after Temple University (perhaps even in his time a personification of third stage syphilis although they've spent money on an upgrade in the last twenty years) attended The Curtis Institute. Morales, though not born in Purgatory, grew up here and went to the same grade school as Owens. He did a phenomenal job in the once cliched (but now no one knows these songs) Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, and although Phillips still seemed to be navigating the vocal line cautiously, she obviously enjoyed his playing.

The Widder has neglected her blog but may do a summary of other concerts in this series that has featured Jeremy Denk, Bernarda Fink, Gerald Finley, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and perhaps giving the most conventionally successful vocal recital, Matthew Pollenzani. And one should comment on Miles Cohen a uniquely Philadelphia creature, who acts as host. But that must wait for another time.