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SCRUTINY | Two Remarkable COC Ensemble Artists Leave The Nest

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Hyejin Kwon and Charles Sy take a final bow as COC Ensemble Artists.
Hyejin Kwon and Charles Sy take a final bow as COC Ensemble Artists. (Photo: Joseph So)

Les Adieux: Charles Sy and Hyejin Kwon in Die schöne Müllerin. May 18 at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. 

To Torontonians, spring means welcoming warmth and outdoor fun, but for followers of the COC Ensemble Studio, it’s also a bittersweet time of sad goodbyes followed by new beginnings. Such was the case today at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, as tenor Charles Sy and pianist Hyejin Kwon, two of the finest COC Ensemble artists, bade farewell in a recital of Schubert’s immortal Die schöne Müllerin. The RBA was filled to overflowing by an appreciative and in the end very demonstrative audience.

I first heard the voice of Sy and the playing of Kwon some years ago, when they were still at the University of Toronto, and I’ve always thought they had a lot of potential. Their tenure at the COC Ensemble have amply demonstrated continued and remarkable artistic growth, from what I witnessed in the many performances I’ve seen. Two years is the typical tenure for an ensemble member, so it’s time for these two artists to say goodbye and spread their wings. Judging by the performance today, both Sy and Kwon are completely ready for primetime.

One of the most beloved of song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin, is an “extended” cycle with twenty mostly strophic songs and lasting about an hour. I can only think of Die Winterreise being longer at 24 songs and about 70 minutes. Given the sheer amount of text and the many repeats, it’s a huge challenge for the singer. Sometimes there’s a music stand, and we make allowances for the singer, like — “oh he/she sings mostly opera and doesn’t have time to memorize…” etc.  Let’s face it, using the score creates a barrier between the soloist and the audience. I give Charles Sy full credit for having committed it to memory, and without faltering at all. Well done!

The piano writing of DsM is technically quite demanding as song cycles go. The piano doesn’t follow but lead, setting the tempo and tone, of course, the pianist should be in total support of the singer. This cycle requires someone with the technical assurance to lead, yet with the ability of give and take, and also a firm vision of the overall architecture of the piece. To my ears, Hyejin Kwon fulfilled all these requirements brilliantly this afternoon, always supportive of the singer, yet seizing every opportunity to shine pianistically — after all it was also her farewell! The lid on the Steinway was fully open, and at the very beginning, I worried it might overwhelm the tenor. But as Sy warmed up, his volume was fine and there was no forcing. It was a fine collaborative effort.

A bit of a surprise, from such a sophisticated audience – there was spontaneous applause after “Mein!” I don’t think the audience was gauche, just simply that Sy sang it very beautifully, with exuberance, dramatic urgency, and vivid imagination. His approach was extroverted and operatic, with lots of facial and gestural expressions, a bit melodramatic if you will — a “Drama Queen” approach but in a good way! I’ve heard enough Liederabend in my lifetime that I know some interpreters are very understated. I recall a very famous singer where for the whole recital she did not raise her forearms above waist level!  For my money, I want the emotions to come out, not bottled up inside.

A final thought — yes, it was sad that this concert marked the “schwanengesang” of both artists, but let’s hope that they’ll return as guests in the future. As I’m fond of pointing out in my previous reviews of farewell concerts by young artists, leaving home is a good thing, a sign of maturity and readiness to tackle the big world out there.  As Brunnhilde sings to Siegfried in Act One Gotterdammerung — “Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde,” let’s wish both artists good luck in their future new deeds.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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