Keri Alkema Hits the High Notes
Too often when a musician is successful at a young age, he or she is dismissed by critics as being a technical master who lacks the “emotional maturity” to perform much of their repertoire. Such criticisms, unfortunately, are not without foundation. Whizzing off notes at unbelievable speeds, these performers resemble a printing press, every note exactly the same as the ones before it in the monotonous but accurate performances. Mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema is a refreshing and encouraging exception to the rule.
This past Saturday, Alkema, a Marilyn Horne Foundation Artist, masterfully performed a repertoire spanning two centuries. Her versatile singing paled in comparison with her admirable ability to leave technique to the unconscious and put full energy into her musicality. Alkema’s dynamic facial expression, gestures and body language seamlessly worked to create vivid characters in each piece.
Opening with an excerpt from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, the mezzo-soprano exhibited an uncanny ability to sing melismas (one syllable held across many notes) and a sense of personality, staying entirely engaged with the listeners instead of slipping into autopilot. Subtitles were projected behind Alkema throughout the performance, though they were hardly necessary given Alkema’s exceptional ability to communicate with the audience.
On several occasions, Alkema paused to address her listeners. Unlike many musicians who can perform for an audience but freeze up when required to speak, her stage presence was powerful and she came off as personable and enthusiastic about the repertoire, exclaiming her love of Mozart, her excitement about singing the upcoming Rossini and her passion for 20th-century American songs.
Accompanist Michael Baitzer deserves ample credit for the performance. A faculty member at Julliard, his playing never displayed less care or intensity than would be expected from a solo performance, though he was far from hogging the limelight.
Rather, Baitzer and Alkema played off each other beautifully. Alkema seemed visibly moved by portions of piano solo and Baitzer played at an ideal volume, deftly avoiding overpowering the singer. His sense of sync both with the vocalist and within his own playing was impeccable. Baitzer expertly tackled Ravel’s setting of Shéhérazade, typically performed with a full orchestra. In the concert’s second half, Alkema paused to speak about her accompanist; she called their relationship a “collaboration between two artists” working for the audience’s satisfaction and insisted that he perform a solo.
Although Alkema’s return to sing an encore — a Rossini aria — was a bit premature into the final applause, there was little doubt the audience would have demanded one regardless. Her performance was widely enjoyed by the larger audience and inspiring to the Conservatory students. Alkema admirably displayed just how vibrant performance can be when the artist has mastered technique, freed him- or herself from fear of error and sunk into rich musicality and love for the audience.