“I know few conductors who take such great care that everything is taking shape,” says Matthias Goerne, the New York Philharmonic’s 2018–19 Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, of Music Director Jaap van Zweden. “Everything is very concrete and worked out. It makes concerts more interesting in dramatic color, and it makes orchestras better.”
The fact that the baritone may be the greatest interpreter of the German Lied singing today inspires the repertoire that launches his residency, December 6–8, in which he joins van Zweden in songs by Schubert and Strauss. As it happens, this is essentially the same program the two performed in their first collaboration, with the Hilversum Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Netherlands in 2006.
Goerne recalls that Jaap van Zweden “asked whether we could perform the set in the [Amsterdam] Concertgebouw,” because of the power of the orchestral settings. “Usually the singer asks, not the conductor,” he continues. “The first concert was so marvelous, the easiness of phrasing. It was a very natural way to make music. I was touched and immediately convinced.”
The December performances already present the singer’s musical point of view. This particular set of Lieder is not a song cycle, like Schubert’s Die Winterreise, but, he explains, “you have to try to connect the pieces with each other, to prepare the atmosphere—you try to make the impression that it is a cycle.”
Goerne and Maestro van Zweden have since performed the songs together elsewhere, including in Dallas and Chicago. “We try to make the atmosphere such that, even with orchestra, there is the intimacy, the fragility, of chamber music,” Goerne says. “It is not most important that you sing loudly, powerfully, but that you go behind the words to deliver a kind of dark, shadow zone.”
It will not be difficult to enter that dark, shadow zone in the concluding program of Goerne’s Philharmonic residency—John Adams’s The Wound-Dresser, set to Walt Whitman poems, on March 21, 23, and 26, again conducted by Maestro van Zweden. The poems draw on Whitman’s experience as a nurse during the Civil War, when there was almost nothing medicine could do for the wounded. Adams composed the piece at a similar period, in 1989, during the depths of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery and the afflicted were dying without succor.
“People had a kind of treatment but no solution from any side,” Goerne recalls, “to express this kind of deep grief, the fear, the anxiety. To use this kind of text makes this a masterpiece.”
This master of European culture is not concerned that Whitman and Adams are pure American. “We are all humans, on a high level of artistry,” he believes. “We are not talking about only one kind of culture, but about something putting all us humans in this world in connection with each other.”
Goerne looks forward to his fifth set of appearances with the New York Phil- harmonic since his debut in 2005–06. “The orchestra is extremely alive,” he says. “It has high standards. There is a kind of challenging energy coming from the orchestra. Any time I have worked with them—with Dohnányi, Maazel, Masur—it was absolutely thrilling, especially also in conjunction with the New York audience.”
But audiences around the world should take note: the time of Matthias-Goerne-the-singer is coming to a close. “For sure, I will stop singing around in about five years,” he says. “I don’t want to retire completely, but when you get older, it gets more difficult. You have to change keys. By then I will have had 35 years that were fantastic, even the times when it was very complex and exhausting work. It never felt like work. It is more a passion than a job.”
Peter W. Goodman is director of the graduate program in journalism and an associate professor in the department of journalism, media studies, and public relations at the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. He was a long critic at Newsday and New York Newsday.