For vocalists, Penna is the ultimate sidekick


Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

Behind every great classical vocalist is a grand piano. And if J.J. Penna is playing the keys, then everyone is in for a treat.

Penna, who is on the faculty at The Juilliard School, the Yale School of Music and the Westminster Choir College, will help School of Music vocalists in his voice master class 9:30 a.m. today in McKnight Hall and the voice concert from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday in McKnight Hall.

“I equate the situation to being a sideman in a jazz setting,” Penna said. “I’m really there to create a platform and fortify them to do their thing.”

Making his first trip back to Chautauqua since being a student in the Piano Program in 1989, Penna looks to help the young classical singers with musical preparation, including poetic interpretations, rhythms, pitches and elements of musical style.

“Most of my professional life is spent in conversation with people for whom I am not the hired pianist,” Penna said. “They come to me with material that they want to get an opinion on. It is a unique challenge, because in a certain way, I don’t want to be on stage with a young artist who perceives me as a teacher.”

For more than a week, Penna will work in a technically based music and literature approach, especially with the upcoming recital being mostly devoted to 19th-century German song repertoire.

“These are the composers that really revolutionized the genre of songwriting in Germany,” Penna said. “And we’re dealing with pulling the text apart and trying to pull the most expressive, the most dramatic performance from a text that a singer can manage.”

Penna encourages his sessions to be more like rehearsals or conversations. That provides a comfortable setting for teacher and student to work together to make music.

“(Voice chair) Marlena Malas has to be credited for creating, over the years, this atmosphere,” Penna said. “She is at the vanguard of the vocal world. She has a knack for spotting and shaping talent.”

In an era of theater and opera where studios’ and audiences’ demands fluctuate, it is easy for young vocalists to be uncomfortable and discouraged.

“The most confusing terminology in the vocal world is the whole big-voice, small-voice categorization of singers,” Penna said. “We don’t really use the words ‘big’ or ‘small,’ ‘soft’ or ‘loud,’ as much as we use the words ‘vibration,’ ‘resonance,’ ‘spin,’ etc. Each professional wants a different shade of that vibration or resonance, which can prove to be maddening for singers stepping into auditions.”

Vocalists must learn how to use their bodies to support a tone. Their techniques are based on understanding the physical process of singing.

“What you’re really responding to when you’re seated in an audience is that developed thing,” Penna said. “That thing that sounds as if it is connected to their physiology.”

Lilla Heinrich-Szas, a 23-year-old soprano and Juilliard graduate student, credits instructors such as Malas and Penna for her new understanding of and approach toward singing.

“This whole thing about conditioning is why I’m here in Chautauqua,” Heinrich-Szas said.

She will participate in the Wednesday recital, performing Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.”

“It was the piece that taught me how to sustain breath and stand up straight,” Heinrich-Szas said. “If you don’t stand up straight in that piece, you will not be able to fill your lungs up to the capacity that’s needed to hold out those phrases, because they’re all high.”

Michael Gracco, a 21-year-old bass who studies at McGill University with Winston Purdy, will perform Brahms’ “Four Serious Songs.”

“These are songs that I’ve performed before,” Gracco said. “But ones that I know will take a very long time to perfect. These are songs with a lot of deep thoughts.”

Gracco will work with Penna on becoming less nervous when on stage, as he continues his maturation process as a vocalist.

“It’s always a great chance to gain experience and grow, and let yourself develop over a summer,” Gracco said. “Normally, I would just sit home during a summer, delivering pizzas.”