The High Horse
Stephanie Szanto: mezzo-soprano, composition, arrangement
Simon Bucher: piano, composition, arrangement, vocals
What at first glance appears to be a solid song recital turns out to be more of a band project. Is that refined trash or trashy high culture? It’s a game with genres! – Why let yourself be limited by genre categories if musical ideas are universal? For their latest project, Stephanie Szanto, an internationally renowned mezzo-soprano from Switzerland, and her compatriot, pianist Simon Bucher, ‘escaped’ their narrow stable and, like adventurous racehorses, ventured out into the world of pop music that they know from their youth. The popular opera and concert singer and her piano partner, who is also a passionate improviser and composer, are full of artistic self-confidence. Unsurprisingly, their project goes well beyond a chumming up of crossover influences. Rather, 18 well-known pop music pieces have been re-imagined in sophisticated ways by Simon Bucher, and the humor with which this has been done is truly a profession of love to the original.
Unearthing the “best of worst” first of all requires the breaking up of the stereotypical quadruple meter of the entertainment industry. Once that is done, for example, the hook line of David Hasselhoff’s Looking for Freedom can once again give birth to music. Stephanie Szanto and Simon Bucher felt at liberty to make even more out of it, such as little jazz operas, great arias, quirky melodramas, or bizarre collages. Again and again, they forge bridges, bring out deep truths, and in doing so, make wide use of the bag of tricks that opera, operetta, and lied singing provide. I’m too sexy, a Eurodance-Hit from 1991, carries a timeless message about vanity and glamour. This message really unfolds through Stephanie Szanto’s brilliant mezzo-soprano, which recreates the atmosphere of great musicals.
Many will remember the carnivalesque disco-glamour of the Village People and their not fully serious military-hymn In the Navy. The interpretation of this duo produces a romantic aria with a sheer endless melody, culminating in a wonderfully skipping waltz refrain. Here as well, pertinent quotes provide surprising effects – a bit of Mozart’s ‘little night music‘ here, a melody from I was made for loving you by hard rock band Kiss there, which, in its essence, is a wonderful modal scale.
Der Berg Ruft (The Mountain is calling) is the title of a party song that seemingly never loses its popularity at glühwein-heavy après-ski ragers. The response of the duo, however, provides a lot more meat to this piece, as they drag through the mire the mythos and pathos of the mountain world: It begins with a theme from Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra; yodel-like vocal acrobatics are mixed in; finally, it ends in a dashing waltz. We will refrain from mentioning here the many other surprises!
Why do pop songs get stuck in our subconscious so much? Because, ideally, a catchy song idea mirrors a mood and transfers it into timelessness. In the early 1990s, a girl trio by the name of Tic Tac Toe reckoned with machismo. Stephanie Szanto and Simon Bucher take this as material for an exalted aria, in which they discuss gender roles, stereotypes, and gender conflicts – all of them eternal (opera) themes.
The disco hit Voyage Voyage made it to the top of the charts as a non-English number, and with a melody in minor key at that. If we forget the trendy synth-pop packaging of the original, we can allow ourselves to be bewitched by the actually existing depths of this melancholic song, as Simon Bucher lets his piano garlands sparkle mystically, and as Stephanie Szanto creates a sense of levitation with her quavering mezzo-soprano.
Not always does this duo have to start with a formally simple original in order to fathom their own, distinctly more differentiated, ways. Queen’s Bicycle Race on its own already offers plenty of orotundity, glamour and stylistic variety. Here, the duo opts for deceleration and focuses on the core statement of the song, which philosophizes on the authentic life without any role expectations – a perfect match to the spirit of this remarkable project by Stephanie Szanto and Simon Bucher.
Stephanie Szanto studied with Elisabeth Glauser in Bern and intensified her studies with Barbara Locher in Luzern. Parallel to this, she studied jazz vocals and composition at the Bern University of the Arts. She has worked, among others, with the Luzern Sinfonieorchester, the Sinfonieorchester Biel, the Lucerne Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Bach Colloquium Zurich, and the Human Rights Orchestra. Further engagements led her to the Oper Biel Solothurn, to the GAIA-Festival and to Murtens Classics Festival. In 2017, she had her debut at the Luzern Theater and the Kunsthaus Zurich, where she performed her own composition, the solo opera Proofing Evidence, with English artist Cally Spooner. Szanto has sung several first performances, has been invited as a speaker to an international TEDx-Event, and has won numerous awards and stipends. She is, among other things, honoree of the Edwin Fischer-Stiftung, the Nicati de Luze Lausanne, and the Swiss Richard Wagner Society.
After studies at the music academy of his home town Bern with Erika Radermacher and Tomasz Herbut, Simon Bucher completed his education with masterclasses with Ruven Lifschitz, Klaus Hellwig, and Irwing Gage. He is laureate of the 10th International Johannes Brahms Competition and the Swiss Tonkünstlerverein. Engagements have led him to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, KKL Luzern, Tonhalle Zurich, MoMA New York, and to festivals like Budapest Spring, Klavierfestival Ruhr, Carinthischer Sommer, Nargen Festival, Murten Classics, and the GAIA-Festival. Simon Bucher was invited as a speaker to the international TEDx-Event, is the artistic director of the concert series ‘Das Lied – Liedrezitale Bern’, and has worked as a docent at the Bern University of the Arts. With ARS Produktion, Orchid Classics, and Carus, he has produced several CD recordings.
October 19, 2019