Interview: Gerald Finley is passionate about the art of the art song


Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley presents a solo recital tonight at Koerner Hall for the Toronto Summer Music Festival. On Sunday, he sings at Westben.

Gerald Finley, on his third concert visit to Toronto in less than a year, is a man on a mission when it comes to the art song recital.

The London-based, Ottawa-born bass-baritone has a thriving career on the world’s finest opera stages, but his heart belongs to the songs and ballads of England, the United States, Germany, Austria and France.

He’ll provide a Toronto Summer Music Festival audience a representative sample tonight at Koerner Hall, accompanied by pianist Stephen Ralls, co-artistic director of Toronto’s Aldeburgh Connection.

On the programme are four Lieder by Franz Schubert contemporary Carl Loewe, the Heine Liederkreis by Robert Schumann, five songs by Edvard Grieg, Four Folk Songs by Benjamin Britten, Cyril Scott’s Lord Randall and The Lost Chord by Arthur Sullivan.

Finley has just recorded the Schumann Lieder for the next installment in his series of acclaimed recordings for the Hyperion label with accompanist Julius Drake. The album should be out in the fall.

As part of his Toronto visit, Finley is spending several days this week sharing his experience and insights with the nine young singers and four collaborative pianists at this summer’s festival academy. Organizers opens the doors on this learning process tomorrow morning with a public masterclass in University of Toronto’s Walter Hall.

Finley has a lot to say on the subject of the art song.

The baritone enjoys a large and devoted following in Europe, but has noticed — as have fans of art song in Toronto — that so much of North American vocal culture is directed at opera right now.

Agents like opera because it’s easier to book an artist for weeks at a time, and the financial payback is more substantial. Young singers like the exposure. But Finley fears that this can be at the expense of fine vocal technique and facility with other languages.

“A recital is a very demanding form and mastering art song requires a tremendous amount of discipline,” says Finley. “It’s also something that you can only master by actually doing it.”

The singer believes that even the greatest names in opera are sometimes disadvantaged in a concert setting — especially if they perform in an overlarge venue such as Roy Thomson Hall: “I love Renée (Fleming) and Susan Graham and Canadian Ben Heppner, but they don’t give a lot of recitals. So the public goes to a large hall and hears something that’s just okay, and then comes out less than impressed.”

Finley speaks of the demands of developing vocal technique and how this interacts with life experience to sharpen a singer’s interpretive skills. Sometimes, the most powerful performances of song come late in a career.

“I think even Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would have thought that his interpretations were not quite right until his vocal abilities were a bit past their prime,” Finley muses.

Only “painters and composers” can master their art and then continue to practice it, undiminished, well into old age, he quips.

Unlike most other opera singers, Finley has enjoyed a long history with art song — some of it in the company of Ralls, with whom the baritone has recorded and performed many times, usually as a guest at Aldeburgh Connection concerts.

“Our rehearsal wasn’t really a rehearsal today,” says Finley, fresh from a session with Ralls. “It was an excuse to talk about the most interesting bits of each song.”

Three decades ago, as a teenager, the baritone tried out one of his first art-song programmes with cousin Brian Finley — a pianist and now co-artistic director of the Westben Festival in Campbellford. Whether or not he thinks he did a good job with the programme, the results convinced him that art song had to be a part of the rest of his singing career.

The two cousins are reuniting on Sunday afternoon at Westben. Ironically, that concert is all about opera and musical theatre — a one-off programme that the singer describes as “a history of my life in opera, starting with Mozart and Rossini.” (For all the details on this concert, click here.)

The programme is a story in itself, as is the case with today’s Koerner Hall recital.

“I don’t just want to do a concert,” says Finley. “I want to take my audience on an adventure.”

For all of tonight’s concert details, click here.

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The Koerner Hall adventure begins with a setting of Goethe’s poem “Erlkönig” — not the one so powerfully set by Franz Schubert, but a version written two years later by Loewe. Here is Finley in 2006, with accompanist Graham Johnson, with an assured rendering of the result:

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Also on tonight’s programme is The Lost Chord, Arthur Sullivan’s 1877 setting of a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864) that enjoyed many decades of huge popularity.

Despite its sticky sentimentality (in tune with the spirit of its times), Finley says he can’t treat it as a piece of kitsch. “Sullivan wrote it as his brother was dying, and is really heartfelt. It was meant as a fireside song,” the singer says. “I like to sing it with the gravitas it deserves.”

Here is Procter’s poem, followed by a recording of it made by Enrico Caruso 100 years ago, on the same day he sang it at a Metropolitan Opera benefit concert in aid of the families of victims two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic:

Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.

I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

It linked all perplexèd meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ,
And entered into mine.

It may be that death’s bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heav’n
I shall hear that grand Amen.

John Terauds

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One thought on “Interview: Gerald Finley is passionate about the art of the art song

  1. John:
    So looking forward to tonight’s recital. Finley is one of the best in the business. His recital in Koerner Hall in 2010 remains one of the highlights of our still young hall. Let’s hope that the Toronto art song enthusiasts show up to support him and the genre.

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