What could be a better way to celebrate Boston’s second-favorite holiday than to be in Charlestown at the beautiful St. John’s Episcopal Church, listening to a duet of tenor and piano perform a wide range of repertoire commemorating the Irish Saint named Patrick?
If I hadn’t been the impresario for the March 19thevent, I would have poured myself a wee snort of Jamesons or perhaps a frothy Guinness before the concert, as considering the mixed repertoire, it seemed as if tenor Joshua Collier and pianist Liya Nigmati could not make the decision of whether this was to be a pops concert or a true classical recital. As this is the first time that Collier and Nigmati performed together in Boston, I had no idea what to expect, as generally the same artists to program a collection of Britten folksongs, are not ones to do “The Star of the County Down” or “When Irish Eyes are Smilin’.” And would the pops audience get the Britten?
Divided into three sections: 1) a collection of Britten folksongs from Ireland and Scotland; 2) a collection of songs made famous by legendary Irish tenor, John McCormack; and 3) popular Irish favorites, the concert might have looked to devolve from the sublime to the ridiculous, but in the performing, humor, sadness and sublimity seemed everywhere present
Collier and Nigmati entered the dark wooden country Gothic space, both wearing the green, as useful floodlights suddenly and dramatically illuminated the performing area, in which a concert grand Chickering piano from 1870 stood before the alter.
In beginning Britten’s “The Salley Garden,” Nigmati, delicately coaxed St. John’s historic piano to create a perfect sonic backdrop for Collier’s warm and inviting tone. The high-flying tessitura seemed to be no match for the crispness of Collier’s diction. Secondly, “The Ash Grove” showed both Collier and Nigmati in their full breadth as storytellers. Collier sang the simple melody with emphasis on the story while allowing his pliable voice to range from diminutive and delicate, to passionate and operatic, while Nigmati expertly adjusted the tonal center to illustrate just how lost Collier had become in the tale. The duo charmed in the pesante “Foggy, Foggy Dew;” the impetuous “Ploughboy,” the nostalgic and transfixing “Ca’ the Yowes, and the haunting “The Trees that grow so high;” but time stopped in “The Last Rose of Summer,” as Collier and Nigmati moved through accelerandi and fermate as if with a single voice. Collier’s burnished auburn vocal color, tinged with pain of regret and betrayal, synched with Nigmati’s “lute-esque and subsequent full-throated syncopated soloistic moments.
The team adopted a much more casual demeanor for music that John McCormack made famous. Called by the world-famous Caruso as “the world’s best tenor,” after many appearances at opera’s most notable stages, John McCormack also used the concert stage to promote his homeland’s musical heritage.
As soon as Nigmati began the warm and painfully lyrical prelude for “Where the River Shannon flows” we all knew the direction of this section of the concert. Collier, minimally affecting a light brogue, offered the lilting tune to great effect — as evidenced by the multiple audience members who hummed along with him.
The jaunty main theme of “The Kerry Dance” rolled in my head for days after the show. This was the first time in the evening that Collier sacrificed some vocal beauty in favor of theatrical effect. While I appreciated impersonation of carnival barker and maudlin weepiness in the minor mode, his interpolated high note and final cadence perfectly embraced the style of those other “Irish tenors.” His flashy finish left the crowd wiggling in their seats while still trying to respect the admonition about not clapping in between sets.
If an opera tenor opens a set by stomping and clapping his hands on his legs to encourage communal engagement, there is a potential for embarrassment. Yet it all worked when Collier began clapping and started singing “The Star of the County Down” in a throaty, decidedly non-operatic sound, as if he had just jumped up, fully intoxicated, on a table at an Irish pub. Clapping along with her partner, Nigmati participated in the communal performance before she took up her pianist’s role. In his exuberance Collier briefly lost his tonal center, but quickly regained it when Nigmati showed him the way, but no matter for this multi-versed, but breathless pop song.
In the light and lyrical “The Rose of Tralee,” Collier and Nigmati relaxed into the simple melody (perhaps too much relaxation because Collier fumbled the final chorus, but regained control within a matter of a few measures.) “The Wearin’ of the Green” finally broke down any unnecessary reserve, and the audience responded with abandon to the pro-Irish sentiment.
The melodically and harmonically simplistic “She moved through the fair” began with Nigmati’s singing right hand over arpeggiated left hand on the sonorous and soulful Chickering; we heard Nigmati as soloist in this folk idiom, such that when Collier entered, it was as if Nigmati continued to play, only painting with the color of Collier’s voice. Collier here achieved his most vulnerability and delicacy of the night. Almost inaudible at times, his sotto voce resonated brilliantly and affectingly in the story of lost love. Many tears seemed to be flowing in the energized stillness of the sanctuary.
Crowd-pleasing favorites: “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” “An Irish Lullaby,” and “My Wild Irish Rose” came to us full in sound, with little vocal or tonal artifice, just good-old-fashioned audience pandering, with good-old-fashioned- music-making.
Collier, thanking the audience for coming, and wishing them a happy St. Patrick’s day on behalf of his partner and himself, afterwards simply and flippantly said “I think you’ll recognize this one” and then performed a “Danny Boy” for the ages. One audience member told me afterwards that “his mother — who was a singer herself — sang Danny Boy to him every day of his life. She passed away years ago, but since her passing, he had never heard a more impassioned and effective rendition” . . ., until this night.
Collier showed both the full power of his roaring dramatic tenor voice, as well as the delicate capabilities of his voix-mixe, with this crowd favorite. Nigmati, delivered gusto and passion when necessary, but was not afraid of asking the audience to lean in to her spectacular innigness.
For the planned encore [which I had requested], the duo dispatched the dramatically philosophical “Oh Moon of My Delight” from Liza Lehmann’s In a Persian Garden. McCormack had oft embarked on this exotic caravanserai.
During the post-concert fellowship, which, aided by Irish soda bread cookies, ocean swell jelly and bubbling libations warmed us all in generous Charlestown community fashion, I warmly asked Collier why the Metropolitan Opera hadn’t yet summoned him.
How about art song repertoire for this duo’s next outing? And maybe a solo turn to Nigmati?