Last night, in the tiny and lovely Utzon Room, I heard Barbara Bonney sing songs by Schumann, Grieg and Richard Strauss. And these were, without exception, songs to which Barbara introduced me. My first encounter with every single one of them was in one of her recital discs. In most cases, too, it was Barbara who taught me to love them. Barbara's version which became my benchmark. Barbara's voice engraved in my brain. Barbara gave me these songs. In fact she gave me the gift of art song, full stop. She introduced me to the songs of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, Grieg, Sibelius, Mozart, Purcell, Dowland and more. I'm not exaggerating. She's one of the foundations of my whole musical existence and I loved her even before I loved opera.
So to sit in that space and hear her sing those songs to me — to hear that music sung live, by the very person who imprinted it upon me, by the voice to whom, for me, it will always belong — well, I don't know how to describe it. And to hear in the flesh, a voice which I have loved for so long on record — and to discover in it, not only all the familiar sounds, but more beauty, more to love — again, words fail. She was Barbara Plus. I sought in her performance everything I've loved for years, and found it; and then she offered me new riches besides.
I had been remarkably calm in the lead up to this recital. Even five minutes before it started, I was tremor free. It was not until the end of Marshall McGuire's introduction, when at last he said her name, that it hit me. Here she was. One of the people who started it all. A singer vital to the life I now find myself leading, and yet so fundamental to that existence that I know I am prone to take her for granted. When she walked into that room, though, I was overcome. With joy, with gratitude, with love, and with tears.
Oh yes, I was a mess, from start to finish. It was extraordinary. I've never felt myself transported in that way by a singer before. I thanked my lucky stars that I was not there to review her, and could simply adore. That adoration encompasses her artistry, of course, not just my emotional attachment, but at the same time, the two are bound together. Her sublime mastery of this craft, her transcendence of technique and academic interpretation, her innate, unlearnable ability to find and convey the soul of a song, and her glorious, glorious voice — all of these things are what, at a time I couldn't have hoped to articulate them — drew me to her, and they're what have kept me there. She gave these songs a heart, and my heart responded.
Through recordings alone, Barbara has given me more than enough. I could have lived my whole life with only those, and been content. I could even live my whole whole life with just, say, her disc of Strauss songs, and be content. Instead, I was given this, a gorgeous culmination of all she's taught me and all the joy she's brought me. I'm still taking it all in. All that's left for me to say is what I stammered out to her afterwards. Thank you so much, Barbara.