Pogorelc makes dazzling Vocal Arts DC debut with program of rarities

Mon Feb 20, 2023 at 11:53 am

Soprano Emily Pogorelc performed a recital with pianist Chris Reynolds for Vocal Arts DC Sunday at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Courtney Ruckman

It’s not something every voice student gets to do. In 2018, while still at the Curtis Institute, Emily Pogorelc was tapped as a last-minute sub to sing Cunegonde in Washington National Opera’s Candide. The American soprano returned to Washington Sunday afternoon for a dazzling Vocal Arts DC recital in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

This was the tenth installment of the presenter’s emerging singers debut series, sponsored in the name of Gerald Perman, the beloved founder of Vocal Arts DC. Pogorelc is a remarkable talent, a lyric soprano with the capacity for lighter coloratura fireworks. Her dramatic instincts and compelling stage presence serve her well in operatic performances. Sunday Pogorelc occasionally veered into too over-emotive a style for a formal song recital.

Demanding songs by Richard Strauss bookended this intriguing program of mostly lesser-known jewels. The composer’s “Ständchen” (Serenade) offered a dulcet opening, with limpid high notes and airy phrasing, matched by the nightingale escapades of pianist Chris Reynolds. Excellent German diction gave witness to the training the soprano has received in Munich the last couple years.

The coquettish side of the soprano sound came through as well in a set of three Hugo Wolf songs, especially the two framing selections from the Mörike-Lieder. Pogorelc combined flirtatious exuberance with ecstatic power in both “Nimmersatte Liebe” and “Er ist’s,” supported by virtuosic playing from Reynolds. In the middle came “Kennst du das Land,” one of the songs sung by Mignon, a troubled character in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Pogorelc deployed a velvety legato tone and rich low range, capped by thundering forte climaxes.

The complexity of love, in all of its seasons as the soprano described the program, was further explored in two songs by the Boulanger sisters. In Nadia Boulanger’s “Soir d’hiver,” from 1914, Pogorelc showcased her story-telling ability, giving tragic poignancy to the composer’s own text about an abandoned woman rocking her baby on a cold wartime Christmas night. Silken high notes and tender soft tone marked Lili Boulanger’s “Les lilas qui avaient fleuri” from Clairières dans le ciel, incarnating the silent suffering of rejection in love.

Photo: Courtney Ruckman

More recent songs in English formed the heart of the program, beginning with the hypnotic, neo-romantic harmonies of “Summer Night, Riverside,” from Andrew Hsu’s Teasdale Songs. Some of the higher notes of the evening appeared here, rendered with impressive strength and control. Joseph Schwantner’s “Black Anemones,” from Two Poems of Aguedo Pizarro, offered more bracing dissonance and less saccharine melodic content, in line with the mysterious dreamscape poem, performed with strange, nostalgic beauty.

At the keyboard, Reynolds was a ferocious presence who paced his partner with just the right rhythmic freedom and dynamic scaling. His solo turn to open the second half was a curious choice, “One of These Nights,” a 2016 song by Hwang Chan-Hee released by the K-pop band Red Velvet. Reynolds’ own arrangement of the tune wandered between cocktail piano and Lisztian paraphrase, supposedly layering in Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” for good measure.

Theatrical surrealism reigned in William Walton’s “Through Gilded Trellises,” a sort of Spanish dance parody, with Pogorelc’s coloratura flights buttressed by daunting keyboard virtuosity. The theme of popular song continued in a smoky, intense set by Francis Poulenc, with especially rich, full sound from Reynolds. Pogorelc occasionally lost the thread of some longer phrases, as her normally solid breath support flagged slightly. The madcap “Il vole” proved the highlight, with both pianist and singer flitting about antically.

Pogorelc’s French pronunciation was competent in the Poulenc songs and the single Debussy selection, the silver, high-flying “En sourdine” from Fêtes galantes I. Pogorelc inadvertently revealed what a difference strong language coaching can make, however, when she mispronounced the title of that song. The young singer overdid it on her commentary in general.

Erich Korngold’s delicate “Mond so gehst du wieder auf,” from Lieder des Abschieds, featured more of Pogorelc’s plangent chest voice. Two more outstanding Strauss lieder rounded out this intriguing program, with Pogorelc camping her way through the chatty “Geduld.” The turbulent “Als mir dein Lied erklang” put a finishing touch on the singer’s bravura coloratura bona fides, with crystalline notes at the very top of her range.

Encores from musical theater and operetta disappointed at the end of such an adventurous program. Marc Blitzstein’s “I Wish It So,” from the musical Juno, captured the soprano’s sense of restless energy, while “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß,” from Franz Lehár’s operetta Giuditta, gave her a chance to kick off her shoes, literally, and let loose with some off-the-cuff twirling about during the dance breaks.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee and pianist Kevin J. Miller perform songs by Owens, Bonds, Barnes, Simon, Okpebholo, and others 2 p.m. March 26. vocalartsdc.org

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