Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams & Pianist Oksana Lutsyshyn
Portsmouth Community Concerts, Inc.
May 1, 2016, Willett Hall
Review by John Campbell
Chrystal E. Williams came home to Portsmouth Willett Hall from her growing international career; she is based outside New York City in New Jersey. The audience’s understanding and appreciation of what Ms. Williams has accomplished grew as each set of art song was offered. By the end of the program the audience was engaged, giving an enthusiastic response.
Making her performance a part of Portsmouth Community Concerts, Inc. 77th Season was an excellent idea. This all-volunteer organization gave Ms. Williams a chance to share her talent with some 200 local listeners. The one-sheet program was spare but the biography given in the verbal introduction did give highlights of her international awards and some of her opera roles. Having the broader community become aware of this native daughter’s accomplishments is an ongoing process and if the promoters had been more savvy the audience would have been larger.
Des Mélodies by French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) opened the program. In Voyage á Paris (Traveling to Paris), the piano accompaniment played superbly by Oksana Lutsyshyn fluctuates wildly, ranging over the entire keyboard, bringing to mind the gaiety of a Paris music hall. The text speaks of leaving a dull place for Paris—“Which love must have created.” Nous avons fait la nuit (We made the night) continues the Paris adventure of a couple in love. The very fast, glittery F?tes galante (Courtship Parties) is a kaleidoscope of city life and the singer’s facial expression was alight with all those quirky scenes of the streets in Paris: fops on cycles, pimps in kilts, firemen burning their pompoms, backs of cabaret singers and on-and-on. The group of melodies closed with The chemins de l’amour (The paths of love), delivered with the passion of a real life drama in the splendor of her voice.
Five songs taken from Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) rather vast collection followed. Vergebliches Ständchen, Op. 84, No. 4 (Useless serenade) is a setting of a lower Rhine folksong. An ardent, young man stands under his beloved’s window, warned by her mother, the girl will not let him in. He says his love will freeze and so will he if she does not. Her response: “go home to bed, good night my lad!” Ms. Williams’s perky delivery gave a clear sense of the song though the audience had no text for any of the songs. Das Mädchen spricht, Op. 109, No. 3 (The maiden speaks) was more serious and romantic. In Juchhe! Op. 6, No. 4 (Hurrah!) Ms. Williams’s face was alive with a smile as if telling a secret. By contrast, Unbewegte laue Luft Op. 57, No. 8 (Motionless, tepid air) offered a quiet, gentle mood until the conclusion with passionate vocal fireworks . Da unten im Tale WoO 33, No. 6 (Down in the valley) is the tale of a young man in love. With a pleading tone he concludes that if she cannot hear him speak of loving a her, he will have to move on.
Chanson Perpétuelle by Ernest Chausson (1891-1953) is a serious story, stately in the telling, and sung with dignified intensity. It was originally written for voice, piano and string quartet. The text comes from a poem by Charles Cros, describing the suffering of an abandoned woman.
Ms. Lutsyshyn then played a reprise of selections by Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953), ten pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75, his ballet of the same title, Op. 64 from 1935-36. We had recently heard her perform with Norfolk Chamber Consort solo piano selections for the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Of the many famous melodies from Romeo and Juliet, we heard five, including the perky march from Scene, the high and low contrasts of Minuet, the musical portrait of Young Juliet with its rush of themes that overlap one another a bit. The quieter, slower pace of Romeo and Juliet before Parting also ends with a typical Prokofiev march.
After intermission Ms. Williams told us that Brahms served on the board that gave an award to Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904) to encourage his composing. Ms. Williams delivered these simple, vocal melodies with a natural, plainspoken sound in the original Czech language. They are not written in an actual Gypsy idiom but are a reflection of the general character of Gypsy music filtered through Dvorák’s creativity. The performers offered an ardent attempt to communicate—these songs are not as spectacular or romantic as Schubert or Brahms but are passionate in the love of nature, music, freedom and the quiet of the forest.
Turning to American standards by Gershwin, Kern and Cole Porter, the singer was a coquettish cabaret singer in Embraceable You, a mellow chanteuse in Can’t help lovin’ dat man, and a freedom lovin' gal in Don’t fence me in.
Chrystal Williams closed with spirituals: Harry T. Burleigh’s (1866-1949) My Lord, what a mornin’ and Ev’ry time I feel de Spirit. She pointed out in her spoken introduction how Dvorák was inspired by Burleigh and how Burleigh, encouraged by Dvorák, took African American group choral songs and put them in a European art song format that is now universal. She closed with her signature song, Ride On, King Jesus by Hall Johnson (1888-1970).
As an encore Ms. Williams wrapped her formidable instrument around the Gershwin lyrics of Summertime, capturing all the excitement and beauty in the text.
Chrystal Williams & Oksana Lutsyshyn Second Tidewater Appearance in Five Weeks
GSA Black Box Theater, June 10, 2016
Review by John Campbell
Though Ms. Williams was suffering from a debilitating cold you would not have known it from her performance. In a reprise of the Brahms, Dvorák and Chausson reviewed, here we had texts and translations in an outstandingly good program booklet. Singing a set by contemporary African American composer H. Leslie Adams (b.1932) was new. Nightsongs, six pieces for voice and piano, was a wonderful experience. Having changed from a dark blue gown, after intermission the glamorous, youthful singer appeared in a form-fitting black gown with a ruffled lower skirt reminiscent of one a flamenco dancer might wear. The why became clear when the set concluded with Creole Girl’s opening line—”When you dance, do you think of Spain…”—with its exuberant piano notes, especially between verses. With arms held wide open, the third verse “When you sing, do you think of young America, Grey guns and battling bayonets, Creole Girl? When you cry, Do you think of Africa, Blue nights and casual canzonets, Creole Girl?” The poem is by Leslie Morgan Collins.
The first Adams song, Prayer with text by Langston Hughes, is one of deep questioning, of finding a direction for one’s life. Another Hughes text, Drums of Tragedy, offers a song to go with a soldier’s dying breath. The Heart of a Woman (poem by Gloria Douglas Johnson) had a lovely held note on the word “home” as it explores being alone. Clarissa Scott Delaney’s poem Night Song has an amazing piano setting with a text that explores the sweet warmth of night for rest and sleep but also a time for tears and grief to be left behind to bravely face the following day. The song Since You Went Away, with poem by James Weldon Johnson, captures the deep sadness of the absence of her loved one. There is no atonality or excessive chromaticism in these tuneful, often simple songs but they do take the most unexpected and delightful harmonic turns says Darryl Taylor in his notes for his Albany CD Love Rejoices  Songs of H. Leslie Adams TROY 428. Robin Guy, piano.
This was the 13th Annual “An Evening With Chrystal E.” Her annual scholarship was awarded to Barrell Davis, Jr. GSA Orchestra cellist and high school senior. Yes, and her encore was Ride on King Jesus set by Hall Johnson.
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