Rosa Ponselle, the legendary soprano who died in her adopted Baltimore 20 years ago this week, loved helping young singers get started. She probably would have enjoyed the chance to work with Stefania Dovhan, the promising University of Maryland student who won the 2000 Rosa Ponselle Competition.
Dovhan gave a recital Sunday afternoon at the intimate and elegant Gildenhorn Recital Hall in the university's new Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, presented by the Rosa Ponselle Foundation. She did her part to honor Ponselle's memory by preparing for the recital with Igor Chichagov, longtime friend and frequent accompanist to Ponselle.
It's too early to tell what Dovhan's career prospects are, but the talent is clearly there. The Ukraine-born soprano has a bright, flexible voice, capable of considerable power; she can communicate a text with clarity and feeling. She tended to sing just on the edge of sharpness, a characteristic not uncommon among Slavic singers, but this caused only minimal discrepancies with her accomplished pianist, Pin-Huey Wang.
Dovhan's program was perhaps too wide-ranging for its own good; it was a one-from-Column-A, two-from-Column-B smorgasbord that didn't allow the singer to settle into any one composer's work long enough to make a deep mark with it. Considering how seductively she delivered a pair of Poulenc songs, for example, or how much charm she brought to a pair of 19th-century Italian songs, it would have been intriguing to hear her do larger groups of them.
Some Handel arias gave the soprano a chance to demonstrate her nimble coloratura technique ("Oh, had I Jubal's lyre" from "Joshua") and sensitivity ("Piangero" from "Giulio Cesare," which could have used more adventuresome embellishments). An aria from Bellini's "I Capuleti e I Montecchi" inspired deftly shaped phrases, as did "Stridono lassu" from Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," though both would have benefited from greater tonal shading.
Schubert's haunting "Gretchen am Spinnrade" was vividly sung, but needed, both at the climactic point and the last lines, greater vocal coloring. In two Glinka songs, Dovhan offered that coloring in abundance, as well as a certain eloquence. Two folk songs from Ukraine also produced engaging results, while Dovhan's encore, "Adieu, notre petite table" from Massenet's "Manon," affirmed her vocal and dramatic potential.
Program had its ups, downs
The last "Chamber Music by Candlelight" program of the season at Baltimore's Second Presbyterian Church generated mixed results Sunday evening.
The first half started off with a pleasant account of a Mozart duo by violinist Cassandra Harding de Colberg and violist Christian Colberg, then went downhill. Kris Braly, who usually plays viola in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, switched to violin and joined BSO principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay for some of Bartok's Hungarian folk songs. The performance sounded tentative, and Braly's pitch often strayed. There were more technical troubles when she tried out a Fritz Kreisler favorite with pianist Eric Conway.
Braly and Virizlay made a smoother match in the premiere of his "Duos for Violin and Cello." But the gently Hungarian-flavored score lacked much distinctive character or melodic interest until the last of its eight short movements, a spirited folk dance. Too much of the writing has the instruments playing more or less in unison, limiting coloristic possibilities. It sounds more like a work-in-progress than a finished product.
After intermission, things heated up nicely with a sumptuous account of Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro" for harp (Eileen Mason), flute (Elizabeth Rowe), clarinet (William Jenken) and string quartet (Kenneth Goldstein and Cassandra Harding de Colberg on violin, Christian Colberg on viola, Bo Li on cello). Another BSO violinist, Rebecca Nichols, offered a remarkably sure and vibrant performance of the Franck Sonata, with equally impressive support at the keyboard from Conway.