Artist Spotlight: Jennifer Whitehead, soprano
For me, one of the real joys in starting this project has been connecting with artists in the Central Ohio community who, otherwise, I may never have had the chance to meet. This past summer, I had the pleasure of connecting and performing with Jennifer Whitehead, soprano, who makes her second appearance with Ohio Song Project at our upcoming fall concert on October 28th. Earlier this year, Jennifer sang as a part of our Summer Fundraiser series and delighted our audience with performances of soaring, lyrical songs by Strauss and Rachmaninoff, and displayed her endless supply of wit and good humor in Leonard Bernstein’s “Four Recipes”, complete with apron, toque blanche, and wooden spoon. For our next concert, she’ll collaborate with pianist Suzanne Newcomb, sharing music by Franz Schubert, Henri Duparc, and John Duke. Recently, Jennifer stopped by to chat with me about her involvement in our project, her background as a musician and teacher, and her love for art song.
Jennifer joined our roster in Spring of 2018, after hearing about the project from a mutual friend. She was intrigued because so often, the world of vocal music is focused on opera, and art song rarely gets much exposure outside of academic settings. Like many Ohio Song Project artists, Jennifer’s passion for this music is frequently manifested in her work as a teacher, which she decided early-on would be a focus of her career. Jennifer held various voice faculty positions around the area before her current appointment at Ohio Wesleyan University as Assistant Professor of Music. In addition to teaching, Jennifer has a long list of past performances in the area, including events with Opera Columbus, the Columbus Symphony, Columbus Bach Ensemble, and orchestras and choirs at Ohio State, Otterbein, and Denison Universities.
Watching her perform, you can really feel Jennifer’s love for the music, and for teaching. At her last performance with Ohio Song Project, the introductions she gave to each song set the stage beautifully. She gave enough factual information about the music and poetry that the audience felt able to engage with the performance intellectually, but she also managed to make a personal and genuine emotional connection with each piece of music, and our audience was right there with her, even before the song began.
At the summer concert, Jennifer shared several selections by Richard Strauss, who she lists among her very favorite composers of song. When you hear her sing this music, it’s easy to understand why she loves to sing it – it fits her voice, her personality, and her sense of musical line perfectly. Jennifer feels her voice is well-suited to “bigger” music, and the music of Strauss celebrates the larger voice and long, lyrical lines.
“To me, it’s as close as you can get to
singing Opera, while singing art-song”.
Jennifer enjoys the musical challenges of Strauss’ Lieder, saying that it takes a high level of musicianship to understand how the voice and piano parts “fit together, but don’t”. The two parts are always flexible, and may not always line up exactly together, which is part of the joy of this music for both the singer and the pianist.
Jennifer has a long list of favorite composers aside from Strauss, including Joseph Marx, Hugo Wolf, and Franz Schubert. She particularly enjoys the big, dramatic songs of Schubert, and will collaborate with pianist Suzanne Newcomb in a performance of his beloved Gretchen am Spinnrade, a powerful setting of a scene from Goethe’s Faust, with our audience on October 28th.
One of the main focuses of this project is helping audiences learn how to enjoy listening to art-song. I asked Jennifer for her thoughts on this topic, and she shared some insights from her perspective as a teacher working with young singers. She puts first priority on the text, saying “You have to know what is being said”. Translations of song texts are so easy to find these days, and essential for listeners and performers. She instructs her students to practice reading the poetry away from the music, seeking an understanding of the meaning of the poem and the feel of the language before singing it. She also told me that she tries to put the music into perspective for students. “I tell [my students], to help them think about it a different way, that these songs were basically top 40 of their day. It was music of the people.” At a time when classical music organizations everywhere are searching for ways to be more relevant to the general public, this is good advice for all of us. Jennifer’s performances offer incredible respect to the art without putting it on a pedestal, and help all of us feel like we can relate to the music.
Don’t miss Jennifer, along with pianist Suzanne Newcomb and baritone Robert Kerr on October 28th! This free event has limited seating available, click here now to register to attend!