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The Return of the Impresario
by Jan Jezioro
Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Valerian Ruminski is back in town
For the final event in this year’s series, the Friends of Vienna will host a song recital by Valerian Ruminski, accompanied by pianist Matt Marco, on Sunday May 3 at 3:30pm in the Unity Church, 1243 Delaware. While opera may be his main focus nowadays, Ruminski also has a passion for song recitals. His performance of works by Brahms, Mahler, Herbert and Vehar this Sunday will be his first local full recital program in years.
Ruminski has enjoyed a high profile on the local music scene since 2009 as the founder and artistic director of the Nickel City Opera. His very successful efforts will continue for a seventh season, when he sings the title role in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the NCO’s new production at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda on June 26 and 28.
“I have been going back and forth between opera and song for my entire career,” says Ruminski, “though it is weighed more heavily towards opera, of course. When I was at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia I spent much more time exploring different art songs and languages than I do now. I am glad about that since it laid the foundation for many of the works I have re-approached and honed more recently. I needed time to ‘play’ with the songs that I don’t have now. Certainly age always helps you interpret songs better and better since life experience colors your expressions and gives you a deeper insight into the meaning of what you are singing. It’s hard to sing about love if you have no experience with it and the same thing can be said about contemplating death more easily when you are 50 than when you are 25. Many of the songs I am singing now are songs I attempted to sing when I was in college at UB. They all are better now because I have a greater feel for my vocal technique and for the text.”
“Preparing for a song/lieder recital is quite different in many regards. In opera you don’t have to worry about every word because some of it is hidden under other singers in duets or trios and some of it is hidden under chorus in larger scenes. But, in a solo recital, you are totally alone and out there exposed. Every word has to be right or people will notice. The other difference is that in an opera you are playing a character, you act. In a recital, most of the time, it is you singing as yourself expressing the song.”
On performing Brahms’ penultimate work, his Four Serious Songs, Op.121, Ruminski says “Well, first off, they were written shortly before he died so that must mean a lot to the composition of them. He was going through the deaths of people close to him and it made him think about the whole concept through his feelings of mourning and loss. This was not a solely religious exploration of death. The verses and texts that he chose were highly controversial in his day. Putting the deaths of animals on the same plane as people was very radical. He chose extremely secular leaning texts to set to music. The songs are surprising, even to me 25 years after I first learned them, because they are examining death in many different ways. Death as uniform for all beings, death as a reliever of pain, death as more of an escape from the pain of life, the exploration of nothingness before conception as being better than life or death and finally death being blind to the inspirations and motivations of daily life. In an era of deep denial, songs like these are a healthy contemplation. Brahms could not have written these songs at a better time in context of his life and death.”
Ruminski will also sing a selection of songs from Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit, by Mahler. “These were a set of songs I learned under the tutelage of Gary Burgess at UB. They are dear to me and I have sung them in private and for myself as a sort of meditation through the years. I sing far more songs in private than I do opera. There is something about the expressivity and personal touch that moves me more. I am an opera singer because my voice is large. That doesn’t mean I want to sing opera more, I just had to make a choice about how to make a living. If I could sing more art songs and lieder and make a better living I would, but the music world is not set up that way now. ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ always struck me as a morbid but very beautiful and powerful song. The idea of youth going to gallows is hard to take but, as we know with war, it happens and most of the time it’s justified. There are ugly passages in the song to be voiced in an ugly sort of way and I liked that, it’s something different. The song shows the spirit of the boy who is tough to the last as he is led to the noose. ‘Ich bin der Welt,’ on the other hand, is one of the most gorgeous songs ever written and it is my favorite song of the first half of the recital. Indeed, I end the first half with it because I want the beauty of that song to echo for awhile before I sing anything else.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, Ruminski will include a selection of songs by the Irish born Victor Herbert. “John McGlinn invited me to come to London in 2000 and sing a duet from Babes in Toyland as well as a selection from Have a Heart by Jerome Kern. We recorded at Abbey Road Studio with the Royal Philharmonic and it was grand. Unfortunately, the CD was never released. It was paid for by John Packard of Hewlett Packard and he was a bit of an eccentric and let the whole thing fall to the wayside. McGlinn told me that I was a real ‘American Bass’ and that if I had lived in Herbert’s day he would have hired me to sing all of his shows. His songs are good for my voice, they are fun and I get to change my voice a bit and sing with an Irish and as Scottish accent. The ‘Time Will Come’ is a grand song, like an aria, and superior in composition to any Broadway songs written today. This stuff was made for my voice.”
Ruminski will close his recital with selections from the song cycle Buk’s Battered Heart, by the longtime Buffalo-based composer Persis Vehar, based on texts by the American writer once described by Time magazine as “a laureate of American lowlife.” Ruminski says “Persis has written many wonderful songs that I have taken to. When I sang my graduate recital she gave me a song cycle based on the poetry of Vachel Lindsay called ‘Along the Santa Fe Trail.’ So, after I discovered Bukowski’s writing in the late 90’s I immediately sent her some of them. She didn’t want to read him at first but after she did she understood what I was seeing and she eagerly set many of the poems to songs. I’m performing five songs from the first set which reveal his inner pain and sadness. ‘Spring Swan,’ the last song in the recital, is definitely my favorite of them all. It is as deeply moving and beautiful as Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt’ and bookends that song as the last song of the second half of the recital. It is also a song about death and the banal and absurd way death manifests itself in daily life. Persis outdid herself writing that one and I love singing it”.
Tickets: $10/5 students.
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