Soprano Fang burnishes rising career with compelling Boston recital debut

February 13, 2020 at 12:19 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Ying Fang performed a recital for the Celebrity Series Wednesday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Dario Acosta

Soprano Ying Fang’s much-anticipated Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night was on the short side. But her ninety-minute-program at Pickman Hall offered a wide range of music, offering a tantalizing view of one of our most compelling young vocal artists.

The night’s program showcased Fang as a singing actress across a variety of roles. Accordingly, text, music, and body language – facial expressions, arm gestures, poses, and the like – were merged into a series of potently expressive vocal interpretations.

When her approach was matched to selections with which Fang fully identified, the results were irresistible.

A pair of George Bizet songs, “Chanson d’avril” and “La coccinelle,” brimmed with personality and flair. Bizet’s setting of Victor Hugo’s wry observations of human foolishness in the latter brought out a particularly ingratiating display of playful character, Fang tossing off its lilting melodic line with a mix of knowing affectation and archly raised eyebrows.

She tackled Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1922 Six Songs, with their searing themes and volatile climaxes, as, essentially, a set of mini-operatic scenes, inhabiting the characters of each song with ferocious intensity.

Fang powerfully drew out the lamenting qualities of the opening pair, “At night in my garden” and “To her,” both reminiscences of lost loves. “Daisies” and “Sleep” proved, respectively, meditative and hypnotic, the latter concluding with the singer’s gaze locked on some far-off apparition.

In “The Pied Piper,” Fang’s flexible phrasings and careful shaping of the “Tra-la-la-la” refrains emphasized the lyric’s suave celebration of amorous triumphs, while the tragic apex of the concluding “Daisies” provided a gripping counterbalance.

Likewise, Fang shaped the night’s longest item, Schubert’s “Viola,” as an urgent, dramatic scena. This 1823 setting of a poem by Franz von Schrober ends in sorrow and death – the eponymous violet crushed by the “pain of love and longing” – and Fang delivered its closing apogee with passionate force. Throughout, her pacing of the narrative, from the pure-toned “Schneeglöcklein” choruses to the bitter “Schwestern nicht” acme, was expertly calculated.

Similarly, Fang sang Mozart’s Barbarina’s “Deh vieni non tardar” (from Le nozze di Figaro) with a strong sense of musical architecture, crafting its last phrase with delicate care. As in her reading of the same composer’s brief concert aria, “Un moto di gioia,” the singer brought excellent breath control, solid intonation, and a strong sense of the line–Mozart’s chromatic inflections were particularly well shaded–to her readings.

When Fang’s performances weren’t quite so emotionally charged as these, there was still much to admire.

The two Handel arias that opened the night – “Endless pleasure” (from Semele) and “Angels ever bright and fair” (from Theodora) – showcased the effortless projection, fine diction, and sheer agility of Fang’s instrument, even as the full-bodied tone of her accounts were decidedly more Romantic than Baroque.

In Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume,” which began the night’s second half, the velvety lyricism of Fang’s singing compensated for a reading that otherwise didn’t burn quite hot enough.

Throughout the evening, the soprano was accompanied by the exceptional pianist Ken Noda. A musician of the first rank, Noda’s playing was consistently stylish, well-balanced and rhythmically precise. He drew out the shifts of color in Bizet’s “Chanson d’avril,” executed Handel’s translucent keyboard writing with aplomb, and turned in virile accounts of Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic piano writing – all along somehow never drawing undue attention to himself.

But it was in Schubert’s “Viola,” with its agile part-writing and sudden shifts of mood and texture, that Noda proved most impressive, playing with a mix of rhythmic energy and poetic sensibility that perfectly matched Fang’s approach to the piece. Not even their soaring encore of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with its undulating keyboard part and towering vocal line, topped the Schubert, which was truly memorable.

The Celebrity Series’ season continues with Stephen Osborne and Paul Lewis performing music by Fauré, Poulenc, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel 8 p.m. February 21 at Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661

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