Isabel Leonard wraps the Sunday Afternoons series with true vocal artistry

By David Fleshler

Isabel Leonard performed a recital of Spanish songs at Gusman Hall, the final event for Sunday afternoons of Music.

Isabel Leonard performed a recital of Spanish songs at Gusman Hall, the final event for Sunday afternoons of Music.

A South Florida music series that began 33 years ago came to an end Sunday with a passionately sung recital of Spanish songs by a rising star of the operatic world.

The Sunday Afternoons of Music series, founded in 1981 with local musicians at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, expanded into a thoroughly professional operation that brought the world’s leading musicians to South Florida. But with Sunday’s performance by the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall, the series’ founder said she will call it quits.

“This is a very bittersweet time for Byron and I,” said Doreen Marx, who ran the series with her husband, in a brief statement to the audience. “This is the final event of 33 years. We’re going to miss you, and I hope in some small way you will miss us.”

Many members of the audience have been attending since the series’ early years. “I’m sad, but I understand,” said Joyce Langley, of Palmetto Bay, in the lobby before the recital. “Things have to come to a close.”

Betsy Kaplan, of Miami, said, “I think it’s great to quit while you’re on top, especially in the arts.”

The series ends pretty close to the top, with a recital by a young singer who has been acclaimed for performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and other leading houses. But since Leonard made her name on the operatic stage, it was disappointing that the program contained no arias, no Mozart, no Strauss, only a scrap of Rossini as an encore. Instead there were songs by Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados and other Spanish composers.

A program like this, filled with familiar Spanish rhythms and turns of phrase, risks becoming monotonous after a while. But this one did not, largely because of the sheer beauty of Leonard’s voice and her ability to embrace the emotions and sensibilities of these works, some of which seemed to last little more than a minute or two. Her voice is rich and silvery smooth, with perfect intonation, an even and effortless tone production from the bottom to the top of the scale and a frictionless agility in moving from note to note.

In Clavelitos by Joaquín Valverde Sanjuán, a sort of patter song about selling carnations and love, she zipped through the high-speed lyrics with agility and rhythmic bite, snapping off the consonants in a way that gave the work a crackling energy. Xavier Montsalvatge’s Canto Negro was a vocal rollercoaster ride, with Leonard’s voice gliding effortlessly from the highest to the lowest register. In his Canción de cuña para dormir a un negrito, she sang a dreamy and sensuous lullaby, repeating the melody pianissimo while effortlessly maintaining her quick, tight vibrato.

From the soaring joy of Granados’ Gracia Mía, she gave a solemn account of de Falla’s Oración De Las Madres Que Tienen A Sus Hijos En Brazos, again projecting pianissimo tones through the hall.

Leonard made De Falla’s Olas Gigantes surge with operatic drama, with searing high notes and heaving power, in a song in which she pleaded with the ocean’s waves to take her away from her grief.

Accompanying her on the piano was Vlad Iftinca, an asset throughout the recital. A true singer’s pianist, Iftinca’s long collaboration with Leonard showed in his easy familiarity with the music and the deftness with which he varied his tone colors, feathery one minute, percussive the next.

Leonard didn’t just lavish her beautiful voice indiscriminately on the music material before her, a point that came out in her performance of de Falla’s well-known Siete canciónes populares españolas.

In Asturiana, a song of mourning, she allowed the plushness to leave her voice, singing in a bleak manner that expressed the sadness of the words. In the lullaby Nana, she minimized her vibrato to bring into her performance the informality and intimacy of a folk-song. In Polo, a song of secret, frustrated love, she snapped off the words “Que a nadie se la diré” (“That to no one will I reveal”), with an aggressive, dramatic bite.

There were two encores, a light, agile performance of Rossini’s Canzonetta spagnuola and a romantic, lyrical account of Ernest Charles’ When I Have Sung My Songs.

And with that, Sunday Afternoons of Music came to an end, leaving many longtime subscribers wondering what they will do instead.

“It was always a very special time on a Sunday afternoon to come to this place and enjoy world-class music,” said Dieter Seidenthal, of Miami, who has been attending the concerts for 30 years. “And she made all this possible at very modest prices.”

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Mon May 19, 2014
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