Tom Strini, Third Coast Digest

Below is a review of Susanna Phillips’ recital with clarinetist Todd Levy on January 25, 2012, which included my Holocaust-themed cycle I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

Soprano Susanna Phillips’ voice — as big, beautiful and amazingly versatile as it is — was not the main thing at the Chamber Music Milwaukee concert Wednesday evening.

The main thing was interaction of that voice with Todd Levy’s clarinet, Ted Soluri’s bassoon, Gregory Flint’s horn and Brian Zeger’s piano. She reacted not only to their tempos, but to their phrasing and the shading of their timbres. She sang like a chamber musician, and the wind players took on the expressive qualities of a fine and sensitive singer.

Phillips and Levy tuned in to each other as if by telepathy in Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio, from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, in an arrangement of R. Strauss’ Morgen that added clarinet (by way of encore), and especially in Lori Laitman’s I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a cycle of six songs on English translations of poems by inmates of Nazi concentration camps.

The Laitman cycle, for clarinet and voice only, is no less monstrously difficult and no less poignant for being understated. The voice and the clarinet play many different roles. Sometimes, the voice carries the line and the clarinet winds around it — sometimes, it’s vice versa. Bitter ironies lie in the weirdly cheery, vaguely klezmer clarinet parts when paired with the grim texts of Man Proposes, God Disposes and Yes, That’s the Way Things Are. The clarinet has mostly soft pedal tones, without vibrato, against an active voice part loaded with tritones — which Phillips hit with deadly accuracy — in the final song. Nothing about this music or these mood-perfect performances strained for effect. On the contrary, that last number came off as the haunting evidence of entropy overtaking the abandoned home of a victim of genocide.