Sunday, March 29, 2009

Music review: Sierra shows star quality with Lynn Philharmonia

Soprano Nadine Sierra.

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- One way to measure the still-developing art of the young soprano Nadine Sierra is this:

After her climactic high B-flats at the end of Un bel di, Sierra waited out Puccini's brief postlude not as a singer waiting for the orchestra to finish or as a happy musician smiling at the audience. Instead, she was staring straight ahead, still Cio-Cio San standing above Nagasaki harbor, waiting for the cannon fire and the sight of Pinkerton's ship on the horizon.

Sierra, just 20 and one of only four winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions last month, has been in the public eye since she was 15, when the Fort Lauderdale native appeared on From the Top, the national radio program for young classical artists. Since then, the Dreyfoos School for the Arts graduate has moved on to New York, where she's a third-year voice student at the Mannes College of Music.

Saturday night, she appeared with the Lynn Philharmonia, the student orchestra of the Lynn University Conservatory of Music, as part of the group's final regular concert of its current season (it will appear in a pops concert April 18 with the Empire Brass Quintet at Mizner Park). Sierra, who was filling in for the ailing Marvis Martin, showed in the course of four well-sung arias precisely why great things are expected of her.

Sierra has a large voice, more lyric than dramatic (at least to my ears), and she sounded most naturally suited for the French music on her program, the high-floating Je veux vivre, from Act I of Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. She sang this bubbly piece with verve and a barely contained in-character excitement as a young girl who's been the belle of the ball and only wants to stay young. The higher reaches of her voice have a fast vibrato that helps the performance sound effortless; still, she was dutiful about sounding each of the grace notes in the main section of the aria, and her diction was admirable throughout, as was her interpolated high C at the very end.

Sierra also demonstrated an attractive character persona in Ruhe, sanft, the beautiful aria of Zaide, from Mozart's unfinished 1779 Singspiel of the same name (K. 344). She was touching as she sang, with excellent German diction and charming hand gestures, of her hopes that the sleeping young man with whom she'd been smitten would see her portrait when he awoke and fall in love with her. She sang with a long, lovely, fluid line that got better as the aria progressed; the noticeable register shifts in the octave leaps of the early bars of the song were gone by the recapitulation, replaced by a wonderful smoothness.

In addition to Un bel di, Sierra sang another Puccini popular favorite, Lauretta's aria -- O mio babbino caro -- from the composer's comic one-acter, Gianni Schicchi. This has become something of a staple for her in local performances, and she sang it very well Saturday night, with first-rate intonation and a warm, powerful sound. It also was slightly on the slow side, which made it over-sentimental and less believable as a passionate plea from a young lovesick woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

In both Puccini selections, Sierra showed that she has plenty of colors in her vocal crayon box, adding a richness for these late Romantic arias that wasn't needed for the Mozart and Gounod. These were compelling readings that connected with the audience, which sighed with pleasure as it heard both famous melodies unfold themselves, and sniffled audibly as Sierra unleashed the full strength of these nakedly emotional songs.

It was an impressive performance, ably accompanied by the Philharmonia and conductor Jon Robertson, the conservatory's dean. Nadine Sierra has abundant gifts, and has clearly worked very hard at making the most of them. It's not difficult to predict a sizable career for her in the world's opera houses if she continues the progress she's made since a national radio audience first learned her name.

The first half of the Lynn program was devoted to operatic music, including two orchestral selections along with the Sierra arias. The evening opened with the Die Meistersinger Prelude of Wagner, for which Roberston set a good, confident tempo. This was a big night for the brass section, which was quite a bit better overall than it has been in previous concerts this season, and they added the requisite amount of metallic glory to this thrilling piece, which received a decent performance overall.

But there were details here that revealed some of the ensemble's weak spots, such as the secondary motifs in the winds that appear right after the theme that opens the prelude. The transition to that much quieter music was inexact, so much so that the winds even sounded flat amid the metric shakiness going on around them, and it took a few moments for the orchestra to find its footing.

The other operatic selection was the well-known Meditation from Jules Massenet's Thais. Violinist Gareth Johnson was the fine soloist, playing this often-treacly music with real feeling but also enough restraint so that it didn't cloy, which is no mean feat.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the Fifth Symphony ( in E minor, Op. 64) of Tchaikovsky. Robertson obviously loves this work, conducting from memory and with an expansive podium manner. The symphony gave the Philharmonia a chance to demonstrate one of its more notable strengths: Excellent string section ensemble, from violins to basses.

This Fifth got off to a too-poky start, but the majority of the first movement after that was appropriately dramatic and engaging, especially in the yearning second theme, for which attention to dynamics paid off well. In the second movement, principal hornist Audrey Destito nailed the difficult and exposed solo that introduces one of Tchaikovsky's best-known melodies, and received well-deserved applause at the end of the concert.

The third-movement waltz had a nice Viennese heavy-offbeat flavor in the initial going, and its faster midsection highlighted the depth of the string ensemble. For the finale, it was brass time again as it had been in the Wagner, with the section playing with full but not strident sound, and the orchestra playing the last triumphant pages with great effectiveness.

The Lynn Philharmonia is an ensemble for orchestral players in training, with the positives (signs of future stars, interesting programming) and negatives (varying quality from year to year, hit-and-miss details) that entails. But as this weekend's concerts indicate, this orchestra deserves to hold a higher profile in the minds of local concertgoers, who might be surprised at what they're missing.

The Lynn Philharmonia repeats this program at 4 p.m. today (a 3 p.m. lecture by Lynn musicology chief Barbara Barry precedes it). Tickets are $30, and can be had at the door or by calling 237-9000.

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