Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 35


Phyllis Curtin in Recital
Theatre-Concert Hall, August 18, 1964

Songs by Debussy and Fauré and composers from Latin America
Phyllis Curtin, soprano
Ryan Edwards, piano

Release: 07/24/2012  


Available for purchase starting July 25, 2012 8:30 AM


Background on the Music

Tanglewood 75 Archival Program Cover For her 1964 recital at Tanglewood, soprano Phyllis Curtin chose a characteristically wide-ranging and distinctive program, the second half of which is included in this release.

This selection began with paired but contrasting settings of poems by Paul Verlaine by Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy - "En sourdine," "Green," "Il pleure dans mon coeur," and "Mandoline."

Then she moved to one of her many specialties, songs by 20th-century composers from Latin America, or as she put it, speaking from the stage, "popular songs by serious composers from Latin America" - Heitor Villa-Lobos, Hekel Tavarez, Oscar Fernandez, and Jayme Ovalle, all from Brazil, and Alejandro Caturla from Cuba. Composers from the Middle Ages to the present have integrated folk material into music for the church and later, into concert music, but the example of Manuel de Falla's Seven Spanish Folk Songs for voice and piano in 1914 created an irresistible model for these particular composers.

Curtin introduces the songs herself, without invariably mentioning the titles, which are as follows:

Villa-Lobos: Estrela do céu é lua nova
                    Tu passaste por êste jardim
Ovalle: Estrella do mar
Tavares: Benedicto pretinho
                Dansa de caboclo
Fernandez: Cançao do mar
Caturla: Juego Santo
              Bito Manué

The soprano's interest in Latin-American music dates back to the early 1950s; her husband at the time was an historian interested in Africa and its influence on Cuba and South America. Her imagination was also seized by the recordings of the extraordinary Brazilian mezzo-soprano Elsie Houston, whose mesmerizing performances made her an idol of café society in Paris and New York in the 1930s. Several of these songs were in Houston's repertoire.

In 1953 Curtin made her first album of Latin-American songs, and in 1964, the year of this concert, she recorded a second album of this material for Vanguard, which may stand as the best of all her recordings. This concert, being "live," brings all the more immediacy and zest; she is obviously having a wonderful time, and so is the audience. Her musicianship is elevated; her voice is pliant and responsive; her delivery of text is lively and meaningful.

Her pianist was Ryan Edwards, who collaborated with her regularly for 25 years while occasionally playing for such other singers as Judith Raskin and Hermann Prey. Edwards graduated from Florida State University, where he worked with the composer Carlisle Floyd and then went to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger. Curtin met him at the Aspen Festival, where their collaboration began. When the soprano heard the present recording after an interval of more than 50 years, she was delighted "at the strength of the connection between voice and piano and poetry. It was the way it was supposed to be. Ryan had a wonderful sensitivity to text."

She also recently recalled another recital in the Theatre-Concert Hall that tested her composure. As she was singing, a skunk made his way down the aisle towards the stage, "slowly and properly. He made his way about two-thirds of the way down, and then he paused and looked around. I kept singing. Then, in a quiet and particular way, he turned around and walked quietly out, and as he left, I could hear this huge sigh of relief in the audience. That is still a picture in my mind."

Phyllis Curtin has enjoyed at least five lives in music. She began as a violinist, an experience that was important for her development as a musician and even as a singer. A graduate of Wellesley College as a political science major, she arrived at Tanglewood in 1946 as a Vocal Fellow; her first opera was the American premiere of Peter Grimes. She took the relatively small role of one of the Nieces, but in later years she sang the principal role of Ellen Orford both in Scotland and at the Metropolitan Opera. Her career in opera took her to Europe, South America, and all over the United States, and ultimately she sang nearly 50 leading roles in French, German, Italian, and American operas. She was particularly admired for her Mozart roles and for her parts in contemporary operas, particularly Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. The title role was not written for her, but she did sing the world premiere and bring it to the attention of the New York City Opera; later Floyd composed two other operas with her vocal qualities and theatrical abilities in mind. She was also a pioneer in opera on television.

Her third career was in orchestral concerts. She appeared with all of the major and more than a few of the smaller American orchestras, singing everything from Bach to new music, sometimes on very short notice. At least twice at Tanglewood she stepped into emergency situations, singing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with Leonard Bernstein and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder with little or no rehearsal. Always eager to communicate directly to her audiences, she translated the texts from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 into English and sang that version with several American orchestras.

Curtin made her debut with the Boston Symphony in 1951, at Tanglewood, and sang frequently with the BSO thereafter. Her final appearance with the orchestra was in 1975, although she continued to give recitals at Tanglewood until 1978. With the BSO she recorded Berg's Le Vin and excerpts from Wozzeck, as well as Debussy's Le Martyre de St. Sébastien.

She was also a most distinguished recitalist, traveling the length and breadth of the land with significant, rewarding, and imaginatively planned programs. She sang new American songs - many of them especially composed for her - so often that she felt she had to apologize to the Tanglewood audience for not singing any on the present program.

In 1963, the year before this concert, Curtin returned to Tanglewood to participate in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. She was asked if she would give a class or two to the Vocal Fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center that summer, and that experience launched a fifth career that has been at least as significant as the singing careers that preceded it. She taught for many years at Yale before serving as Dean of the School for the Arts at Boston University, where she still gives master classes. From 1963 to the present, the Phyllis Curtin Seminars have been the soul of the vocal program of the Tanglewood Music Center; although she recently turned 90, she hasn't missed a class yet. Famous singers have emerged from her classes -Dawn Upshaw, Sanford Sylvan, and Stephanie Blythe are conspicuous examples- but no one has emerged from contact with her without being challenged and changed. Over the course of 66 years she has come to represent the spirit of Tanglewood to many people. Music directors of the BSO, instrumentalists, distinguished visitors, and the general public have thronged to her classes because she offers something more than lessons in singing; she gives lessons in life.

Richard Dyer



"With the discreet and lambent pianism of Mr. Edwards, Miss Curtin could choose any nuance of the gamut her artistic sense might persuade . . . Miss Curtin's regal appearance and captivating smile predisposes anyone who might come determined to enjoy a song recital . . . The idea of allowing an audience to hear how two masters of vocal writing would use the same poems was a capital one. Which one conveyed the Verlaine spirit more faithfully? That is not easy to decide, but if my reactions were at all typical, I could have listened to all eight again in Miss Curtin's poignant and graphic presentation."
-Jay C. Rosenfeld, Berkshire Eagle

"Miss Curtin's skill as a recitalist is such that it is difficult to say which group she was happiest with. All sounded as if she were singing without effort and with pleasure. Her voice had plenty of power when needed and could be throttled down to float light-weight notes easily. And her control was immaculate. She shifted tone colors neatly to fit the mood of the song, enunciated words with precision and hit the high, hard notes as if it were easy. Her voice was bright with a ringing, crystalline quality that lent it a dramatic power . . ."
-R. C. Hammerich, Springfield Union