Solo Recital: Michaela Unsinn
In a Garden Shady…

Private guerillaclassics Recital in Uster, 2020-04-13


2020-04-19 — Original posting



Outline


guerillaclassics — Subversive Concerts?

guerillaclassics was founded in July 2017 in Zurich. The goal was to organize high-quality concerts offering classical music to audiences which typically would not attend regular concerts. The main focus is on concerts in the Zurich area, with occasional “excursions” to other areas, also other countries (e.g., in 2020, they did a tour through Switzerland and South Africa).

Venues

guerillaclassics events rarely take place in regular concert halls / sites. The goal of reaching new audiences implies unusual locations: open air venues such as streets in residential quarters, public places, recreational areas, parks, construction sites, even a raft on the lake of Zurich, but also the big hall of Zurich main station, and the like.

Repertoire

The events are typically solo recitals or chamber music, and some resemble flash mob gatherings. The repertoire is broad, ranging from baroque / classical / romantic music, up to contemporary classical & Jazz.

Artists

guerillaclassics currently features close to 100 professional musicians. It is a group of highly motivated, young musicians, among them names that I have come across in concerts that I have reviewed in my blog (the linked dates in the list below point to reviews on concerts featuring the respective artist):

guerillaclassics cooperates with a numerous institutions and also receives support by a wide range of foundations and organizations. Michaela Unsinn, the artist in this recital, is one of the founding members.

The Advent of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic not only caused most musicians to lose their regular (or event-related) income, but it also deprived audiences of the opportunity to attend concerts. In Switzerland, events with more than 1000 participants were forbidden on 2020-02-28. On 2020-03-13, the number of allowed participants was further lowered to 100. One week later, gatherings of more than 5 people were forbidden, physical distancing enforced. For concerts, the above restrictions will likely persist for months to come.

guerillaclassics Reacting to the Pandemic

Luckily, there’s guerillaclassics offering relief with music! The organization grabbed the opportunity to offer very affordable local solo and chamber music recitals. They call this a “corona pilot project” under the motto soul food delivery. The musicians participating in this travel receive a modest salary. For the listener, the concerts are very affordable. For as little as CHF 100, one can have a short solo performance in one’s garden, courtyard, or on a street in a residential area. Of course, extra donations are always welcome. Naturally, these are events not involving a concert grand or a piano in general, unless that is provided by the venue / an audience member.


An Unexpected Opportunity

In the recent past, I was busy attending and reviewing events in the regular “concert circus”. I have not had a chance to witness any guerillaclassics event so far. Even if I had happened to walk into one of them, I might have considered it outside of the scope of my blog. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, I suddenly had time at hand, there were no more regular concerts. At the same time, our life essentially was now confined to our house / property. Or, at least, otherwise restricted through consequent physical distancing / self-isolation.

In that situation, it came as a pleasant surprise that a neighboring family invited us to attend a guerillaclassics solo recital that they organized in their garden. This offered an opportunity to meet an artist that I hadn’t heard in a performance so far. At the same time, it gave me a chance to write about guerillaclassics and their activities. Hence this blog post.

Note, however, that I’m not doing my usual, elaborate review. Given the special circumstances, I’m focusing on guerillaclassics, as well as personal impressions from that event.

The Venue

The venue was a residential quarter (close to our house), with mostly detached, 3-story houses, each with a small garden. This recital was in a well-maintained garden at the corner of a block, both streets with very little, if any traffic. There was one single car passing by during the recital. An ambulance rushing away from the nearby hospital caused more of a disruption.

The owners of the house, a family of four, were the only audience on the property. My wife and I were listening from the street, and there was another couple listening some 5 meters from us, at the corner. A few more people in the neighborhood were listening from balconies / windows, or from chairs on the other side of the street. The recital took place at 2 p.m., the temperature was mild the sky blue. Spring had arrived days (if not weeks) ago. The leaves started pushing out, cherry blossom had begun, flowers appeared everywhere. What more could one wish for?


The Artist

The only artist in this recital was Michaela Unsinn, a young Swiss/German mezzosoprano who received her vocal education from the ZHdK, the Zurich University of the Arts. There, she obtained her Master degree in Pedagogy, as well as in Performance. While she is continuing her vocal studies, Michaela Unsinn has successfully launched a career as solo singer, mostly in oratorio, but also in opera, from baroque to post-romantic. She also is performing Lied recitals. For details on the singer’s biography, education and musical career see the artist’s Website.


The Recital

In her half-hour recital, Michaela Unsinn covered a broad range of pieces, from opera and operetta arias, Lieder, up to musicals. She had no accompaniment whatsoever, just sheet music for some of the pieces, and a stand for a smartphone serving as tuning fork. All of the pieces were originally written with orchestral or piano accompaniment.

The Program

Michaela Unsinn performed seven pieces. I’m not discussing the compositions as such, but I’m giving links to compositions and composers:

  1. Opera “Les Huguenots” by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791 – 1864): Urbain’s aria “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” from act I
  2. LiedIn der Fremde” (In a Foreign Land), No.1 from Liederkreis, op.39, by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), on a poem by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788 – 1857)
  3. The song “Après un rêve” (After a Dream), the No.1 from Trois Mélodies, op.7, by Gabriel Fauré (1875 – 1924), after an anonymous Italian poem.
  4. Musical “Cats” (1981) by Andrew Lloyd-Webber (*1948): Grizabella’s song “Memory” from act II
  5. Musical “West Side Story” (1957) by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990): Consuelo‘s song “Somewhere” from act II
  6. Opera buffa “Don Pasquale (1810) by Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848): Dottore (“Dottoressa”) Malatesta’s aria “Bella siccome un angelo” (Beautiful like an angel), from act I. In the original, this is a role for baritone.
  7. Operetta “Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) by Franz Lehár (1870 – 1948): Act I, from the role of Count Danilo Danilovich, the aria “O Vaterland“, with the famous refrain “Da geh’ ich ins Maxim“. In the original, this is a role for tenor or lyric baritone.

Michaela Unsinn was offering a selection of pieces from her repertoire. She has also participated in smaller / provincial opera and operetta productions. These don’t have the resources of a big opera house. So, roles were sometimes adapted to the singers at hand. One example here was the aria from Don Pasquale. The baritone role of Dottor Malatesta was simply renamed to Dottoressa Malatesta. Along the same lines: a woman singing the role of Count Danilo (this song in particular!) in Die lustige Witwe would not make much sense on stage. However, that point was totally irrelevant here.


Personal Impressions

Michaela Unsinn arrived by car, minutes before her recital, and she sure had no idea about the acoustics. Within minutes after her arrival, she has set up her music stand, used her smartphone as tuning fork (and cue?)—and just started singing. She didn’t show any signs of insecurity, nor was she “seeking resonance”, a “place in the acoustic environment”. The few words of greeting & casual introduction may have given her enough information about the acoustics. She is a professional singer, after all. Still, it takes a lot of guts to perform the above repertoire with the “naked” voice. Let alone with the imponderabilities of unknown acoustics in an open air garden environment!

Sound

I was most amazed by the fact that the acoustics indeed worked out well! The surrounding houses (10 – 20 meters apart) obviously reflected enough sound to offer acoustic support for the singer’s voice. Of course, it is hard, if not impossible to judge a voice in such an environment. Still I would state that Michaela Unsinn commands a well-sounding voice, with a warm, harmonious timbre and a natural vibrato. There was no pre-announced program—the artist offered casual, short announcements / introductions “on the go”.

Michaela Unsinn explored the mezzosoprano range from the full sound of the central register to the upper end (well-controlled, not exceedingly pointy, still) and down to the bottom end. For the low end of the vocal range, the open-air acoustics did indeed show limited support/resonance. At the bottom of her range, the voice was close to parlando. Some of this may have been accidental, though. The ambulance and a car passing by may have caused the singer to lose pitch. In this setting, however, that didn’t really matter—the audience barely noticed.

Summary

A most enjoyable recital, and a rather unexpected opportunity to enjoy a nice voice performing an excellent, broad selection of repertoire in the course of just 30 minutes. And Michaela Unsinn’s open, friendly personality further contributed to making her short appearance a delightful, memorable—albeit local—success. Tanks a lot for this pleasure!

Post-Scriptum

Just a short explanation for the title to this post. During and after the recital I could not resist thinking of the text at the beginning of the Hymn to St.Cecilia, op.27, by Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976). This is based on poems by W.H. Auden (1907 – 1973). The Hymn starts with “In a garden shady this holy lady / With reverent cadence and subtle psalm, / Like a black swan as death came on / Poured forth her song in perfect calm…“. If one ignores the “holy” and the “black swan / death”, isn’t this a perfect match for this recital?


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