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James Agee and Joélle Harvey made me like Samuel Barber

San Diego Symphony's A Village Romeo and Julietand Knoxville Summer of 1915

Chilhowee Park, Knoxville, circa 1915
  • Chilhowee Park, Knoxville, circa 1915
  • Wiki Commons

Soprano Joélle Harvey was my favorite part of the San Diego Symphony concert on Friday, March 1, at Symphony Hall. Over the years I’ve been critical and disappointed with the vocal experience at the symphony but it’s getting better and with Ms. Harvey, we received a performance which was special.

There is something beyond a fine voice or fine diction or fine intonation which goes into a special performance. The added ingredient Harvey included was inflection which conveyed an emotional connection to the text and the music.

We should probably discuss what it was she was singing.

The concert began with a suite from A Village Romeo and Juliet by Frederick Delius. The suite was compiled by Delius’s champion of all champions, Sir Thomas Beecham. I enjoy Delius and I enjoyed this performance. It was the first time I’d heard Delius performed by a live orchestra.

Next was Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915. I have been, in these pages, a fanboy of James Agee’s text of the same title and a solid “meh” on Barber’s setting of that text. However, put me in the hall with a singer such as Joélle Harvey and orchestra such as the San Diego Symphony with Edo de Waart conducting and my estimation of Barber is on the rise — kind of.

What worked most for me was the performance of Ms. Harvey. For instance, on the vocal high point of the piece, Harvey let her voice relax into the top note and led the crescendo with her vibrato. That last sentence makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t studied voice. In fact, it probably doesn’t make sense to some who have studied voice.

What that means is that Harvey didn’t force tone. Instead, she increased the amplitude of her vibrato. I must be clear that she increased the amplitude of the vibrato not the length or width of her vibrato. The effect is to increase the height of the vibration, not the width—never, ever the width—which creates a shimmering tone which brings out a voice’s ultimate beauty. That ability is, in my opinion, the preeminent quality of bel canto singing.

Brava Joélle Harvey!

The second half of the concert was Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. It is my least favorite Mahler symphony. I wish I could say I had a moment of grace such as I had with Barber’s Knoxville but I didn’t. Any symphony which has four flutes, two piccolos, and no trombones is going to be difficult for me to digest. Of course, Joélle Harvey sang brilliantly in the final movement.

That final movement was somewhat cheeky as Das Knabern Wunderhorn text explained what all the saints are doing in heaven. I chuckled when Ms. Harvey sang the text explaining that Martha is the cook in heaven.

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