If you’ve attended a recent Boston Baroque Messiah in Jordan Hall, you might have heard bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s forceful interpretations of “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and “Why do the Nations…” (and if not, listen online). On Sunday he came to a very different venue, Peabody Hall at All Saints Church, Ashmont, with a very different repertoire, in a brief (75 minutes) but satisfying recital.
Tall, with a strong rectangular face and impressive dreadlocks, Burton strikes an imposing presence. His employs a strong and pure, steadfast and noble voice with subtlety in interpretation, and avoids the overtly dramatic. His opener, “In This Trembling Shadow” from John Dowland’s A Pilgrimes Solace, a devotional song whose original is for four part harmony and lute, as stripped down to a single voice and piano, became an unexpectedly spare study in carefully shaded melody. His reading of Schumann’s Dichterliebe started with similar care, even with fragility, as if in singing he was carrying something easily broken. This quickly changed in “Im Rhein,” with its stentorian formality, and was entirely overthrown in a thrilling “Ich grolle nicht,” a display of paradoxical emotional stoicism. Burton might not have quite enough sighing romantic variety to sustain the same level of interest through all 16 of Heine’s lovesick poems; while drama may have gone a bit wanting, beauty was always evident. Christopher Walter partnered throughout with intelligence and care that paired well with Burton’s approach, perhaps almost upstaging him with the short essays he made of the postludes in Dichterliebe. However, Peabody Hall resonated rather more generously to the piano than to the voice, and as the afternoon went on, a number Burton’s quiet moments struggled to project.
In place of heartsick drama, Burton displayed keen comic timing in three rather silly songs from Francis Poulenc’s Chansons Villageoises and two more intriguing ones by Scott Perkins (b. 1980). The texts for Perkins’s Riddle Songs come from the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry which also contains 100 riddles (provided without solutions). Some of those riddles have disputed solutions; some are salacious. Texts of the two songs selected weren’t the most interesting, but the music did engage and announce a unique voice. Though very brief, each had a unique character and texture: the first a cascading and shimmering of light, the second something of a music hall stomp. Burton warned the audience of some “extended vocal techniques” — he is, after all, a founding member of Roomful of Teeth — but apart from some breathy whispering and some extended falsetto, it all fell quite easily on the ear. The Poulenc benefited from Burton’s good taste, as he used just enough movement and facial expression to signal the light-heartedness of the songs without lapsing into overbroadness.
Burton then brought resolute dignity to three spirituals (“I’ve Been in De Storm So Long,” “Deep River,” and “My Lord, What a Morning”). In “Deep River” he intriguingly used the tonal distance between his vibrating bass resonance and plaintive high baritone to italicize the leap in “my home is over Jordan.” A conventional ‘Freedom in the Air’ followed, which garnered a standing ovation more for its sentiment than its delivery. The afternoon ended quietly with a sweet and comfortable reading of William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s Blue that underplayed the Bolcom’s harmonic waywardness and Weinstein’s lyric’s knowingness, but always landed softly and warmly on the repeated line “That is what I want to do…is sit real still with you.” Burton is not primarily a recitalist at this point — perhaps the relative brevity of the program acknowledges that — but he has an instrument and a sensibility that makes one interested to hear any future investigations of these repertoires.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.