The sound of the human voice is the result of breath flowing against an individual’s vocal cords, vocal folds closing and opening at regular intervals, essentially chopping the airstream into small pulses. Remarkable when one stops to think about how that pulsing air and vibration from an instrument so small is the means by which a great singing artist communicates with her audience.
The voice that emanated from mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard on Sunday afternoon at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall was opulent, truly the fusion of physiology and finesse.
Leonard is the final solo singer in what has been an incredible lineup at Spivey Hall this year, following memorable performances from baritone Simon Keenlyside and countertenor Andreas Scholl. Next season’s schedule is set to be announced today, and it will be difficult to outdo this year’s cast of singers.
A graduate of Juilliard who has already sung leading roles, including Miranda in Adés’ “Tempest” and Rosina in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia“ at the Metropolitan Opera and abroad, Leonard was raised in New York by an Argentinian mother and an American father. Her program made sense in that light, showcasing a potpourri of Spanish songs in the first half and songs by U.S. composers, including three world premieres, following intermission.
Statuesque and gorgeous, Leonard is exceedingly expressive. Every song was a vignette, riddled with subtleties of face and gesture, ideal for the intimacy of a vocal recital. Moreover, she constructed a smart program, highlighting her Spanish fluency and rich vocal timbre. Accompanied by Romanian pianist Vlad Iftinca, she opened with a rarely heard Andalusian song by Manuel de Falla, “El pan de Ronda,” and one of Victoria de los Angeles’ signature pieces, “Clavelitos” by Joaquín Valverde Sanjuán. Her delivery was casual and utterly spontaneous. Leonard makes singing look easy.
The second song group consisted of disparate selections by late-19th-century and 20th-century Spanish composers. Beginning with “Gracia Mía,” excerpted from Enrique Granados’ “Canciones Amatorias,” the singer created a narrative about a mother who first professes that her child is the most beautiful creature she has ever seen. That was followed by Manuel de Falla’s “Oracion de las madres que tienen a sus hijos en brazos,” the prayer of a mother that Jesus would spare her infant son the life of a soldier. The third selection, “Sólo las Flores Sobre ti” by Federico Mompou, is a song about death and grieving. Leonard closed her song cycle with Falla’s angst-filled “Olas gigantes,” in which the mother begs the immeasurable waves to have mercy and swallow her up, eradicating her memory and reason. A young mother herself, Leonard infused this set with intensity. Iftinca was just as vibrant as the pianist, bringing forth lush harmonies.
Leonard highlighted the songs of three contemporary American composers as well: Jennifer Higdon, Glen Roven and Ben Moore. Of the three world premieres, Roven’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Wild Nights” is a keeper. It’s not as frenetic as Lee Hoiby’s setting, and the vocal range is more limited. But Roven has composed an apt setting for the poem and does it justice, with agitated and repetitive piano figures set against a sweeping vocal line.
At Spivey Hall this weekend, Isabel Leonard definitely proved that she’s more than just a pretty face. She is just as proficient singing Cole Porter’s “Where, Oh Where” as the “Cinco Canciones Negras” of Xavier Montsalvage. And her Rossini isn’t bad either.