By Peter Jacobi
I arrived early, way early on that last day of January afternoon, so early that, by silently entering Auer Hall, I heard the concluding portions of Beethoven’s D Major Piano Sonata, the Opus 10, No. 3, performed by Master of Music candidate Gregory Wang. It was Wang’s Graduate Recital that I had invaded. I’m glad I did because his Beethoven was excellent.
Wang’s Beethoven was a bonus. I had come for Auer Hall’s next scheduled event, a master class to be given by the distinguished American bass-baritone Eric Owens, this as part of the Five Friends Master Class Series, this particular class in memory of Chris Carducci, one of the five gifted Jacobs School students so tragically killed in a plane crash.
Once the generous applause for recitalist Wang ended, the hall emptied out, and for a few minutes I was there alone. I switched seats from the back to the front, the second row, and I began to read program notes about Eric Owens. As I did, I could hear other folks arriving for his class, set to start at 3:30. It must have been about 3:15 when a voice from someone hovering above startled me.
“Whatcha reading?” said the voice. I looked up. It was Master Owens himself. “Your life,” I answered, and quickly rose to shake the hand of an artist I admire. He smiled. I smiled. And off he took up the aisle to shake more hands, then headed down the other aisle still meeting members of his audience.
He was making friends. He was establishing an aura of informality. Maybe, he was also trying to make his six master class singers relax. By the time the first of those to-be-taught students took his place on stage, along with Katie Gleiser at the Steinway, the air in the hall seemed warmer, friendlier, and perhaps the tension had eased.
Owens sat quietly, off stage, as bass-baritone Christopher Seefeldt sang Robert Schumann’s “Die beiden Grenadiere” (“The Two Grenadiers”) without interruption. Seefeldt sang this sad musical depiction about two defeated French soldiers returning from imprisonment in Russia; he sang it quite well but somewhat stiffly. After applause, the visiting master took over. For the next 15 minutes, he had his student repeat and repeat and repeat a passage of that song, striving for nuances that, from time to time, Owens voiced as well as explained. Sometimes, what he sang seemed a clearer, more direct means of instruction, show versus tell moments. But it was the combination of both that brought change.
“Do me a favor,” he told Seefeldt. “I want to clearly hear what you’re saying. Do it as if you never had a voice lesson. Tell me a story. That’s what the song is, a story. Take your position. Breathe. Hold. Sing. And enjoy it.” There was student-teacher conversation during those 15 minutes. There were stories and asides. There was laughter. There was at least external patience on Christopher Seefeldt’s part as he obeyed the calls for repetition. Who can know save Seefeldt what was going on internally?
But when, at the end of their session, the two shook hands, there seemed to be student gratitude for the opportunity of having worked with a star performer and caring teacher. That’s what these master classes are all about: a chance to learn from an acknowledged practitioner. The Jacobs School brings in dozens of them a year, some of them more famous than others, yet each with artistic gifts to give.
But I wondered what was already going through Bruno Sandes’ mind, having observed the Owens-Seefeldt lesson. He was next and must have been thinking if a similar reception would greet his singing of “Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer” (“I Have a Red-hot Knife”) from Gustav Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer,” an ultra-passionate piece about thwarted love, the composer’s own.
Sandes earned an Owens “Bravo” at the end of his run-through. His baritone proved potent in size and expressive. But, yes, he would face a similar string of requests and commands: “I want more clarity of tone.” “I want more frantic.” The master also snapped his fingers and clapped hands to sharpen the phrases and pace. The concluding handshake came with “That was awesome.”
Marcus Simmons unwrapped his bass-baritone for “O du, mein holder Abendstern” (“O You, My lovely Evening Star”)the dreamy aria from Wagner’s “Tannhauser.” “Sing it without words,” he was told. “Don’t fuss. Just sing.” And “Color doesn’t happen in the throat. It happens up here” (those words as Owens’ hand chopped between his nose and cheek). And “Tape yourself. Listen.”
Bass Michael Hyatt sang the stately, hymn-like “O Isis und Osiris” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Demands for him included: “Do it in English.” And “Sing it like it’s a pop song.” And “Open your mouth.” And “Forget your training. You’re drunk. Sing the aria without words. Just let go.” Hyatt did and showed improvement. “The sound is there,” said Owens, “because you weren’t worried about it.”
A soprano followed: Anastasia Talley. She focused on a highly fragrant song of Debussy based on a poem of Paul Verlaine, “C’est l’extase langoureuse” (“It is the Languorous Ecstasy”) from the composer’s “Ariettes oubliees” (“Forgotten Ariettes”). Owens told her, “Have a seat,” from which she took the treatment to come. “It is the fatigue after love,” go the words following the title. “You’ve worked hard, the song tells you,” Owens reminded Anastasia Talley. “You’ve just come out of the ether. Don’t perform. The voice should be smoky, liquidy. Take super-sized breaths. And consider you’re eating puff pastry, not German pork and potatoes or Italian pasta. Think food, French. Think puff pastry.” Most likely then, Talley did.
One more singer was to come, with slated time in the hall soon to expire. But bass-baritone Rafael Porto got his fair share of attention after he sang “Come dal ciel precipita” (“As the Sky Falls”), an aria of foreboding sung by Banquo in Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Master Owens continued to take things apart and even raised the piano lid. “Be frightened,” said he. “Sing into the instrument,” advice to help Porto capture the claustrophobic nature of Banquo’s predicament.
When the class was over, it was left for the students, on their own and with their teacher, to put back together what Eric Owens had taken apart. The master class had become part of the process that is each singer’s life path to improvement and perfection. In the longer run, most likely, not everything worked on will be followed. But the views of the master will not be forgotten. Nor will the time itself on that Saturday afternoon in January 2015 when Eric Owens came to share his mastery, his ebullient personality, and his love for music and the human voice.