IN: Reviews

The Vocal Recital Abides

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Though last night’s intimate Vaughan Williams vocal recital began with a duet of “a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino” (Shakespeare), the lovers and the lasses of sweet spring soon made way for ponderers on religious and metaphysical stuffs during Boston Art Song Society’s visit to Somerville Music Spaces.

True to the mission of presenting “intimate salon-style concerts…to encourage diverse audiences to engage more deeply with poetry and music in an unpretentious, casual settings,” baritone Dana Whiteside, tenor Ethan DePuy, and pianist Julia Scott Carey invited us into a domestic sized music room for a thematically consistent “journey past the highest heights imaginable” (Five Mystical Songs), treading paths of the idyllic English countryside (On Wenlock Edge), and finally looking back on a well-lived lifetime through the misty-eyed wanderer (Songs of Travel).

We very much prefer this sort of vocal recital to the ‘hey, look at me’ brands that celebrities deliver in overly colorful bouquets of languages, periods, and styles. “Silent Noon” possessed the consistency and inevitability of a concert-filling cycle like Die Winterreise, giving more attention to the words and music than to the performers themselves.

The threesome introduced themselves with “It was a Lover and A Lass” (1921) to a text from As You Like It. Whiteside intoned like an old-master painted: varnished burnt umber relieved by shafts of light. He mostly stood with right leg forward and hands clasped—dignified and wary of excess gestures. DePuy made more of a point of selling the songs with a smart affect, BBC English, a good gestural vocabulary, and he looked at individuals in the crowd. His pinging bright tenor somewhat overwhelmed the confines of the small dry room, but it sounded fresh and lively. Both approaches had merit. Carey transformed the well-voiced Steinway B into peals of bells and hurricane-force storms when she wasn’t embracing her partners as a co-observer of the changing moods. Her added Rondo and Pezzo ostinato from the featured composer’s Suite of 6 Short Pieces revealed her comfort as soloist and her elevated chops.

Whiteside delivered the Five Mystical Songs (1906 – 1911) to texts by the 17th-century Anglican priest George Herbert as a worshipful éminence grise and gloriously baritonal prophet. No. IV called us to the spirit of love’s truth and light with moving conviction.  The final command to “Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing…” met with unanimous approval.

The collaboration of DePuy and Carey in On Wenlock Edge left us a bit nostalgic for the missing string quartet in the original version, but in some ways that lacuna brought characterization into focus and drew attention away from the merely pleasant string-toned scenery. DePuy, in brilliant voice, expressively outgoing rather than inward-lookiing, underlined as a well-informed tour guide.

Whiteside’s vulnerably and entirely anti-thespian approach to the Songs of Travel (set to 9 of the 44 poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s namesake collection, a few of which the poet specified tunes for) made the most profound impression of the evening. Warmer of tone than before the intermission, he celebrated a life well lived with a conviction that brought tears to many of us, especially in the one more-or-less-strophic number of the concert—the big hit tune,“Whither Music I Wander.”  Wiki’s (uncredited author) concluded that “The last song, ‘I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Path,’ was added to the cycle posthumously: This song recapitulates the whole cycle in just four phrases that form a miniature scena of recitative and arioso, quoting four of the previous songs in the cycle, before ending with the opening chords, suggesting that the traveler’s journey continues forever, even in death.”

DePuy’s somewhat-harmonized duet of the master’s “Silent Noon” (to a Rossetti poem) closed the radiantly somber evening:

Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for the deathless dower
This close-companioned inarticulate hour when twofold silence was the song of love.

We absorbed the glowing nostalgia and unabashed romanticism with great pleasure, but we would be remiss if we didn’t call out two minor irritants. Because of really strange column orientations, the libretto required several confusing de capo’s. And if the singers wish to eliminate barriers between stage and house, they need to memorize.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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