julius drake

Friends of Chamber Music preview: Tenor Matthew Polenzani

The Metropolitan Opera veteran sings music by Barber, Beethoven, Satie, Liszt and Ravel.


Friends of Chamber Music brings renowned opera tenor Matthew Polenzani to Portland on January 28 as part of its Vocal Arts Series. Accompanied by veteran pianist Julius Drake, he’ll sing music by Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Satie, and Barber. ArtsWatch’s Alice Hardesty talked to the 46-year old New York resident about that performance, as well as about singing at the Met, making recordings, appearing in broadcasts, and making the “terrifying” transition from singing in a big fully staged opera in front of thousands of fans to giving an intimate vocal recital. 


Polenzani in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Lyric Opera of Chicago Photo © Dan Rest.

Polenzani in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Photo © Dan Rest.

On reaching large audiences via the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts.

Everywhere I go, I meet people who say, “Oh, I love watching you in the Met on HD, and I couldn’t wait to hear you in person!” I admit I had reservations about the idea at first, and I can now say wholeheartedly that I was completely wrong. It’s been a great boon for the artists and for getting the art-form out to the public.

I’ve been singing at the Met since 1997, but the first performance in HD wasn’t until 2006. It was The Magic Flute and I was in it. By that time I had been singing at the Met for nine years, so that stage was a pretty comfortable place for me. In fact, you don’t really notice those cameras when you’re singing. The camera that’s just below the edge of the pit is probably the most intrusive one, but I don’t look down very often — in fact I tend to keep my eye level a little higher. However, I will say that before the show, there’s a lot more pressure, knowing that it’s going into all those theaters. Live!

You know, what we do is really a high wire act. Especially as a tenor, we’re singing notes that the human voice wasn’t really built for. You have to train your voice to do it, and even the best training doesn’t always yield perfect results. Name any famous singer, and sometimes their voice just doesn’t come out the way they want it to. That’s the function of being in a live performance. So the pressure of having to produce something for HD, millions more than the 4000 people who are in that theater, it’s a little different!

That being said, I’ve always felt that I can’t sing any better for James Levine or Ricardo Muti than for the Butte Montana Community Association. I always want to give the best I can give and make as much beautiful music as I possibly can. Whatever comes out is whatever comes out and I can’t change it.


Editor’s note: In the past couple weeks, Portland experienced a rare confluence of Winter Journeys — no, not the snow- and ice-strewn commutes of this year’s Snowpocalypse, but two performances by renowned musicians of the same classic work: Franz Schubert’s 1828 song cycle. ArtsWatch’s Katie Taylor and Jana Hanchett accompanied one journey each; here are their travel diaries.

Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish performed at Chamber Music Northwest's Winter Festival. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish performed at Chamber Music Northwest’s Winter Festival. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

 Scarlata and Kalish: Missing marrow

“Now I hope you all come back after the first half,” Chamber Music Northwest violinist Ida Kavafian told the audience just before baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Gilbert Kalish performed Schubert’s song cycle Winter Journey (Winterreise) on January 25. “Don’t do anything terrible to yourself during intermission; life is not over.”

An awkward pause with a few nervous titters followed, but Kavafian got it right: listeners and performers alike should expect to leave a performance of this song cycle emotionally wrung out. Unfortunately, it never happened for me.

Schubert’s musical setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller depicts the psychological breakdown of a rejected lover. Within the song cycle, the lover, facing imminent rejection by his beloved, secretly leaves her house in the dead of winter to stumble through snow-covered paths, sobbing over past memories and shouting out delusional visions. The cycle ends with the image of a homeless organ grinder standing barefoot on an icy street, listlessly turning his instrument’s handle while a dog growls, ready to attack.

While listening to Scarlata and Kalish’s performance, instead of feeling tempted to swallow a bullet, I ended up experiencing a major insecurity complex: Was it the performers? Was it me? My lack of emotional connection to the performance worried me and sent me on a hunt for reasons.


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