Hidden Valley SongFest

By Louis Lebherz

THE FIRST WEEK of the new year brought to Carmel Valley a new program produced through Hidden Valley Music Seminars entitled SongFest Winter Intensive, and subtitled “Vienna in the Valley.” A vision of founder/director Rosemary Ritter, SongFest is a program for serious young singers housed at the glamorous Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angeles. The road to a successful classical singing career is so much more than a voice and a personality. It requires years of study and refinement in music theory and history, languages, vocal technique, acting skills and more.

This past week at Hidden Valley, under the tutelage of such giants in the world of music as baritone Sir Thomas Allen from the Royal Opera House of London, and world renowned accompanist and scholar Graham Johnson, as well as American mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, and Scottish-born conductor Stewart Robertson, fifteen young singers and five young pianists were intensively schooled in the Lieder of Franz Schubert, especially Schubert’s two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. For six straight days the German poems and their settings as songs were intensely analyzed by Johnson, and the young singers and accompanists were coached by Allen in two-a-day masterclasses.

One can spend a decade at the best universities and conservatories perfecting one’s art, attaining advanced degrees, and auditioning, and yet there is no guarantee. Suffice it to say that of the numbers of students entering their first year of college as a vocal arts majors, perhaps one in one hundred will eke out a living as a singer, and one in a thousand will achieve international success. That being the case, it does not deter these young vocalists. When one is called to pursue the fine arts, one answers the call. SongFest is an advanced educational program with the goal of teaching the finest young singers the high art of Lieder. The German word for songs, Lieder is an art form in which the singer interprets the songs of the great (and perhaps not so great) composers, predominantly from the German and Austrian traditions, perfected in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The names associated with this form are Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, to name but a few. The poetry used in the creation of these songs can be taken from any and all of the world’s great poets throughout history. It is indeed an enormous field.

The culmination of this work was a concert on Sunday afternoon aptly titled Die Schöne Schubertreise (The lovely Schubert journey). Sitting off to the left side of the piano with a microphone, Johnson took the audience, who had braved the stormy elements to attend, on a wonderful journey through the twenty songs of Die Schöne Müllerin and the twenty-four songs of Winterreise, both to the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, a close associate and colleague of the composer. As he talked about each poem’s literal and psychological meanings, Johnson interspersed each set with six songs taken from the pieces, sung and accompanied by the student singers. Between the two cycles the students performed six additional songs of Schubert, the final four of which were settings of poems by the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The effect of the afternoon’s performances was to have experienced fully both song-cycles in less than two hours, and attained an enlightened appreciation of Franz Schubert’s art.

arthur-moellerSelected from 300 applicants, the singers were baritones Jarrett Porter, David Tahere and John Tibbetts; tenors Lucas van Lierop and James Onstad; bass Matthew Stump; sopranos Victoria Browers, Katharine Dain (left) and Alexandra Smither; and pianists Taylor Hutchinson, Nikolay Verevkin, Gloria Kim, Jennifer Szeto and Pierre-André Doucet, all of whom demonstrated admirably the care and advice of their master teachers. It was a glorious concert experience.

It is the hope and intention of Rosemary Ritter and Hidden Valley’s Peter Meckel to make this an annual event. Although endowed to some extent by two generous Los Angelenos, the recently deceased Marcia Brown and her longtime editor Janet Loranger, the success of this program will require local community support as well.

(Other participating young SongFest artists not appearing in this concert were sopranos Sarah Davis, Laura Levoir, Ashton Smith and Devony Smith; mezzo-soprano Solmaaz Adeli and tenor Ricardo Garcia.)

Photo by Arthur Moeller