Being a musical child prodigy requires more than merely playing or singing difficult pieces without missing a note or rhythm: a true prodigy must also make genuine music. A singing prodigy must additionally have a total awareness of the texts and communicate same to the audience. The 11-year-old Clark Rubinshtein is the real thing: he sings with emotional commitment and communication as well as a natural feel for phrasing. Moreover, he has poise, presence, and personality. On Thursday, January 9, at Jordan Hall, Rubinshtein sang a memorably, encompassing seven languages and even more styles; in addition, he spoke to the audience without a trace of self-consciousness or nerves.
As the Commonwealth Lyric Theater Orchestra under conductor Alexey Shabalin began, we heard but didn’t see the pre-adolescent-alto in Franz Lehar’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (My whole heart is yours, from The Land of Smiles) in very good German, as he processed from the back of the hall to the stage in endearing schmaltz-and-schmooze style. But schmaltz notwithstanding, Rubinshtein made the title-line declaration honestly and sincerely, avoiding any corniness—his youth and apparent innocence were advantages here. As was to be expected, the young singer was amplified, but fortunately, the miking was skillfully done, and we suffered no feedback or exploding consonants.
The evening had an interesting dichotomy of formal vs. informal: young Rubinshtein wore white tie and tails but enjoyed bantering with the audience before almost every number, with just a trace of a lisp reminding us of his extreme youth. But given the lack of any printed texts and translations, I wished the opportunity had been taken consistently to give a synopsis of each song. When he did do it, it was concise and effective: the summary and moving performance of Antonio Caldara’s “Comme raggio di sol” were of one piece. Yet nearly every beginning voice student has encountered this song and (one hopes) already is familiar with its text, but that of a far lesser known piece—Anton Rubinstein’s “Desire”—went unmentioned. In my opinion, the performer already demonstrated a prodigious memory to sing a full-length program in so many languages without dropping a word; it should not have been his responsibility also to synopsize the pieces he was singing. Printed synopses at the very least or, ideally, full translations would have allowed listeners a still deeper appreciation of Rubinshtein’s talent.
Some selections are very well known, though many were odd choices for this program. Figaro’s aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was sung and acted out wittily (e.g., the crisp salute and snappy march when the music turns military); from The Magic Flute Papageno’s first aria was charming musically, but having an 11-year-old “wink” at the metaphor of “bird-catching” would have stretched credibility and was sensibly avoided. On the other hand, it can hardly be avoided in his duet with Papagena; a boy alto singing a baritone part up an octave and paired with an adult soprano a whole head taller was quite peculiar, to be charitable. Olga Lisovskaya was amusing and agile as the “bird” caught by Papageno. She rightly avoided any attempt to match her timbre to Rubinshtein’s, but the result was, well, peculiar. With opera’s wealth of pants roles written in the alto range, it was strange that none was chosen. In the duet of the two fishermen from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Rubinshtein sang Nadir while his teacher Alexander Prokhorov was Zurga. The men’s close friendship had nearly been destroyed by their love for the same woman, but they both agreed to renounce her to keep their friendship. Their warm and tender singing revealed the deep bond between them.
Teacher Prokhorov also collaborated with his prize student in art song, this time from the keyboard. Two well-loved Schubert lieder, “Ständchen” and “Das Wandern,” were sung with smooth legato, sweet tone, and real communication. Indeed, Rubinshtein’s extensive physical depiction of flowing water, turning wheels, and heavy stones in the latter song would likely be critically pilloried in an adult singer’s rendition, but it seemed entirely in keeping with a child’s manner of storytelling. It was only a pity that Prokhorov felt at liberty to recompose passages in both songs’ piano parts. In the three amusing Russian character romances by Alexander Dargomyzhsky and Alexandre Dubuque that followed, Rubinshtein vividly brought their characters to life, supported skillfully by Prokhorov’s playing. The final one, Dubuque’s “Don’t Be Cunning with Me,” was a dialogue between a smooth operator and the woman he woos. Our young singer here was simply hilarious, distinguishing the two with entirely different voices as well as a man’s hat and lady’s fan. It was plain that the man thought he would have another easy conquest, but after leading him on, the young lady shows him she wasn’t born yesterday, ending with a literal kiss-off.
Still greater variety came in the second half which opened with conductor Shabalin donning a Tevye-cap and playing an impressive violin cadenza to lead into Jerry Bock’s overture to Fiddler on the Roof. This led logically into the colorful “A Chazandl Oyf Shabes” (by an anonymous composer), in which a tailor, blacksmith, and coachman listen to a cantor singing (represented by Shabalin playing violin with Prokhorov accompanying) and compare the best aspects of their professions to the music’s beauty. This offered Rubinshtein still another opportunity for physical storytelling which he seized with both hands, literally and figuratively. Aaron Lebedeff’s “Rumania, Rumania” (with orchestra) is a paean to living to the fullest, beginning expansively then jumping into a lively strophic dance; both singer and clapping audience reveled in the rhythm and ever-increasing tempo, a real tour de force. Cesare Andrea Bixio’s “Mamma,” a Neapolitan song with castanets!) was of course dedicated to young Rubinshtein’s mother. The singer remained poised and elegant while melting every heart.
We returned to opera as the recitalist got his only breather of the evening. In his place, Polish-born bass Pawel Izdebski sang Fiesco’s aria from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, accompanied by Maxim Lubarsky. As were all singers this evening, Izdebski was amplified, hardly necessary for a voice of Wagnerian size and something of a detraction in an aria that is mostly quietly penitent. Nonetheless, the bass still conveyed a sense of introspection in Fiesco’s fervent prayer to the Virgin Mary. In the quartet from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with Lisovskaya, Rubinshtein, Prokhorov and Izdebski, the boy was slightly outweighed by the larger adult voices, but ultimately the action revolves around Izdebski so this is a secondary concern. As impressive as the singing, the complicated choreography appeared to be executed without a hitch.
Rubinshtein then turned entertainer, donning a spangly black derby (the orchestra in white fedoras) to deliver Harry Warren’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” with all the swing and fun anyone could ask for. Next came Gilbert & Sullivan’s Major General Song from The Pirates of Penzance, backed up by the Lucky Ten Young Talent Studio Chorus. Many spoken asides were so drawn out as to defeat the purpose of a patter song. The audience didn’t seem to mind, though. The last programmed tune was Luigi Denza’s “Funiculi Funicula,” also backed up by the chorus. This had rhythmic punch, and Rubinshtein gave it plenty of showmanship as well. For a gentle encore, he and the orchestra gave us “Smile Though Your Heart is Aching,” another old standard that can easily descend into cornball, but the young singer’s innocence shone through once again, and again there was hardly a dry eye anywhere.
Alexey Shabalin and the Commonwealth Lyric Theater orchestra deserve much credit for handling the plethora of styles impressively and being sensitive partners to the recitalist and all his cohorts. Though some of the repertoire might have been better chosen for this concert, there was no mistaking the great talent and huge potential of young Clark Rubinshtein. His versatility in classical song, opera, folk song, and musical theater is astounding in one so young, as is his poised demeanor. His is a name to watch.