Who, in this infinite musical universe, has not been smitten by the singular voice and phenomenal presence of Thomas Quasthoff? The German bass-baritone will open Carnegie Hall's 116th season on October 4 with the first installment of his Perspectives concerts, which start with Mahler and Mozart and end with "Moon River." His mastery of the repertory is beyond question, but who knew he had that old razzle-dazzle? Quasthoff will scat and croon like the best of them during his recital tribute to the American songbook. He'll also give you a chance to experience the best show in town: his must-see master class.
Mozart is as good a place to start as any — especially given the ongoing celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. On October 7, The Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-M‹st will feature Quasthoff performing several concert arias. These are stand-alone virtuoso pieces, not arias excerpted from operas — although a few are remarkable rejects originally written for the stage. "Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo," for instance, was penned for CosÐ fan tutte, but, according to Quasthoff, Mozart "took it out because it was too long and difficult. There weren't many singers who were able to sing it." Quasthoff nails it effortlessly.
Quasthoff's intense relationship with Mahler will also be explored during his Perspectives season, first with Maestro Welser-M‹st and The Cleveland Orchestra at the Opening Night Gala and then, on January 23, with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach.
"Mahler is a very important composer to me because he is in a direct line from Mozart," observes Quasthoff. "His music touches a part of my heart, which gives me the ability to understand what he needs and what he wants. I don't have this with many composers." Anyone familiar with Quasthoff's Mahler recordings hears this connection immediately.
Quasthoff's last Perspectives concert this season, on March 7, is called An American Songbook. "I like to improvise," he says. "And if you can't let go in jazz, don't do it. I grew up with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra. If I'm a good singer, why should I cut off a part of music making that I love very much?"
Just don't call it "crossover."
"I don't like that word," says Quasthoff. "Crossover for me means a classical musician who uses a classical voice for jazz songs. Jazz has to sound totally different, and I try to sound totally different. It's a different kind of music making. Jazz has to sound like jazz."
One wonders where such a flexible, rich, and expressive instrument came from. It helped that Quasthoff's father studied singing. And his parents supported the first inklings of his talent at age 13 with voice lessons.
"At that time, I was not thinking about a career," recalls Quasthoff. "I was just playing a game. I learned from my teacher to develop the natural quality of the voice. She always said, 'Thomas, if your face does not look natural, the sound will not be natural.' I think she's very right with this, and I'm teaching my students the same way."
On March 5 at Zankel Hall, Quasthoff will coach and converse with students from Berlin's Hochschule f‹r Musik "Hanns Eisler," who will be on hand to perform Schubert lieder and romantic songs. This Discovery Concert, Thomas Quasthoff and the Art of the Song, is a Sound Insights program under the aegis of The Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall. Anyone who attended the master class Quasthoff conducted at Weill Recital Hall last season knows how much passion, humor, wisdom, and common sense he brings to these sessions. And he doesn't belabor technique.
"I could easily talk to them in a totally intellectual, analytic way," says Quasthoff. "But I think it's much more effective to mix it with humor and ask questions like, 'How would this sound if you were angry? Or happy? Or sarcastic or ironic?' These comments they remember. This is what touches people. It's very simple."
Robert Hilferty is a critic and arts reporter for Bloomberg News, Radio and TV.