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Friday, October 16, 2015

Concert Review: In the Time of Their Singing

Eric Owens curates In Their Footsteps at the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Eric Owens (left) and Laquita Mitchell sing "Bess, you is my woman now"
at the New York Philharmonic as Thomas Wilkins (right) conducts.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.
Eric Owens has become an unlikely star of this young century, anchoring the grandest operas with his rock-solid bass-baritone and powerful, passionate delivery. This year he is Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. As the first of his duties, he assembled In Their Footsteps: Great African American Singers and Their Legacy, a concert celebrating the long history of African-American singing in the United States heard Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall.

The eclectic program celebrated the lives of four singers: Marian Anderson, Betty Allen, George Shirley and William Warfield. In addition to filmed interview footage with famous current singers discussing the legacy of these four artists, the program offered a wide range of works: from spirituals and ragtime to the European art music of Verdi and Mahler to songs written for the Broadway stage. The starry cast on screen included such luminaries as Denyce Graves, Simon Estes and Mr Shirley himself, all now occupying teaching posts and all brilliant artists in their own right.

Mr. Owens displayed acumen and wit in constructing this program, opening with three selections from the Scott Joplin opera Treemonisha, with the Philharmonic playing under the baton of conductor Thomas Wilkins in his debut with the orchestra. Treemonisha is from 1910, an opera that could not find an audience or be taken seriously at the time of its composition, mostly due to Joplin's background as a composer of tunes like the Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer.

It could be argued that this show is a lost classic, over a century old and yet neglected on most stages. Mr. Wilkins led a punchy account of the Act I Prelude with the Philharmonic players seizing on Joplin's toothsome rhythms and playing them with great energy. This  was followed by two numbers. The aria "The Sacred Tree" was sung with supple grace by lyric soprano Laquita Mitchell and "Wrong is Never Right", the "lesson" aria sung by tenor Russell Thomas. Ms. Mitchell lyric soprano familiar from a 2012 New York City Opera production of La Traviata made this a strong Philharmonic debut. Mr. Thomas is a sturdy tenor, a familiar presence on this stage and with this orchestra.

Mezzo Deborah Nansteel took the stage next, a late replacement for the indisposed Marietta Simpson. Unfortunately, this resulted in the removal of the Mahler lied "Ging heut morgen uber felds" from the program, leaving the song "In diesen blauen augen" to make its own lugubrious statement. She was followed by soprano Janai Brugger, singing the Charles Gounod setting of Ave Maria, itself an adaptation of the Prelude in C from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. The first half of the evening ended with three spirituals, sung by Ms. Nansteel, Ms. Brugger and the Dorothy Maynor Singers from the Harlem School of the Arts.

The second half was more exciting. Mr. Owens sang a cheerful "I Got Plenty O'Nuttin'" before Ms. Mitchell joined him for a passionate "Bess, You is My Woman Now" from Gershwin's celebrated opera Porgy and Bess, a work that these artists performed in 2014 at Lyric Opera of Chicago and also filmed for home release. Their instant, easy chemistry was a hit, followed quickly by Mr. Thomas in a soaring "Ingemisco," an extract from the Sequence of the Verdi Requiem. (Mr. Thomas and Mr. Owens sang the complete work together at the Philharmonic last season.)

In this context, "Old Man River", a song from Show Boat made famous by the great William Warfield seemed almost a well-worn cliché. Mr. Owens sang it almost self-consciously, aware no doubt of the legacy that he was representing but relaxing into the barcarolle-like rhythms of the famous lines "Tote that barge, lift that bale." The concert ended with all five soloists and the Harlem singers returning for the Shaker song "Simple Gifts", framed here with music from Aaron Copland's ballet score Appalachian Spring. In this famous music, it was finally the turn of the Philharmonic players to find their collective voice.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.