In these pages, I am often put in the rather unenviable position of reviewing student performances. A paid professional expects criticism, and certainly the opinion of one college student will not weigh heavily on his or her mind. I doubt that CD jackets will feature a quote from Judd Greenstein of The Williams Record anytime soon, no matter how many times I use the term “life-changing.” On the other hand, if I liken a performance to the experience of watching a log rot, my lowly status in the context of the larger musical world means that the performers will almost certainly not lose any sleep.
Student performances are a completely different story. In a small community such as ours, with limited critical assessment of one’s work, any review carries a much greater weight. This is not to say that people take my word all that seriously, but few enough people attend student musical performances that the opinion of one listener actually constitutes a sizeable percentage of the audience. So it’s necessary to carefully consider where the bar should be set, and while I tend to be forgiving of technical difficulties, the bar is high when it comes to the musicality in a given performance.
Richard Giarusso ’00, in his performance of Franz Schubert’s Winterreisse, quite simply leapt over any and all bars that I might have set. His performance was among the best I’ve seen at Williams College, including all of the professional groups that have made their way through our halls. This brief review does no justice to the event, but it would seem strange to make no mention of what I can safely say was the best arts event of the week.
Winterreisse is an extremely long piece, comprised of 24 songs and lasting over 80 minutes. Beyond its sheer length, it is also very difficult in that every song is a different illustration of one man’s gloom as he walks along in the winter. While Schubert demonstrates his genius in somehow bringing a new sound to each song despite the potentially monotonous subject, the onus is on the singer to bring his own sense of musical variety to the work.
Richard grabbed me and dragged me into the misery of the piece. Rarely have I felt so connected to a performance, so in line with the emotional course that the performer was laying out for me. I was never bored, and despite not understanding German, I would have been able to follow the essential outline of the “story” without benefit of a translation. A variety of tones came from the stage, but more importantly, so did a variety of emotions.
Everyone in the audience seemed thoroughly impressed with this performance, though I doubt that everyone took away the same thing. The technical challenges inherent in performing Winterreisse are not as obvious as those in a Chopin Etude or a Paganini Caprice. Furthermore, it is not a “pretty” piece, in the usual sense, and it makes tremendous demands on the listener as well as on the performer. Anyone who stands up and sings for an hour and half will get generous applause when he’s through, but I’m not sure how many audience members were actually along for the full emotional ride.
Although I’ve focused here on Richard’s role in delivering the song, pianist Doris Stevenson desrves a great deal of credit for her work in bringing this mammoth work together. It would be easy to neglect her, both because she is a professional, and thus is expected to perform at such a high quality, and because she here plays a somewhat subservient role to the singer. I feel guilty for waiting until the last paragraph to acknowledge her work, but the evening belonged first and foremost to Richard. The performance was a fitting capstone to a terrific career at this institution, and Williams should feel privileged to have helped foster such a talent.