Wednesday, December 9, 2015

An Uneven Concert Experience

I went to a concert the other night. Except during the chamber music festival, when there are a lot of good concerts in a short period of time, I don't attend many concerts because there are not very many--unless I go to a neighboring city. But this concert looked interesting and I had helped bring it about by introducing the artist to a local impresario. What made this concert very unusual was the singer, a countertenor, as the program noted, the rarest type of voice. For some history and information about this vocal type, you might consult the Wikipedia entries on countertenor and falsetto.

As this is not going to be a typical concert review, I won't mention the name of the singer, but just talk about some interesting issues that the concert provoked. There were two halves, though not separated by an intermission. The first half was mostly a traditional voice recital with music by Handel, Berlioz and the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge. In the second half, there was a different pianist accompanying. The first half was a fine classical pianist and the second half was with an also fine jazz pianist.

One of the most interesting aspects of the concert was the body language of the singer who had studied theater arts, gesture and movement before becoming a singer. He adopted a different demeanor for each song and modified it during the song. For the Handel he first appeared like a puppet hanging on strings before raising his arms in a dramatic gesture. For the Berlioz he adopted more plaintive romantic postures including, in one song, kneeling on the floor. For the Montsalvatge he pushed up the sleeves of his evening jacket and lounged casually on a chair. Later he sang one song sitting on the floor with crossed legs. All of these postures were obviously carefully thought out for the specific effect desired in each song. They were dramatically effective as they were constantly calling attention to the appearance of the singer. This both focuses the attention of the audience and, to some extent, distracts from the musical content.

I consulted with a vocal authority who commented that he was controlling the sound through tension, swallowing the words and there were problems with the timbre. We didn't talk about it, but one odd thing was that he sang about 5% of the music with the modal voice register, that is the normal male range. So it was as if the singer was, in a few moments, replaced with an entirely different singer.

The second half of the concert saw a different approach. I mentioned that the classical pianist was replaced with a jazz pianist. This was because the repertoire was traditional, jazz or popular: "God Bless the Child", "The House of the Rising Sun", the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and a song from a new musical to be premiered here shortly. For this part of the program the house lights were turned down and the singer used a microphone. In my opinion this was unnecessary in this fairly small hall and it was grating at times. The pianist also tended to overdo everything with excessively jumbled arrangements. This did go with the voice though, as the singer wallowed from one song to the next. The extremes of stretched phrasing, tessitura, dynamics and vocal ornament were used to the extent that I almost wished I was somewhere else. I dislike excess, which I regard as false and melodramatic, and my companions at the concert had much the same reaction. I notice more and more that audiences are suckers for anything loud, overdone or emotionally excessive. Unfortunately, there are all too many artists willing and able to indulge them.

In retrospect, and focussing on the music and not the presentation, the Handel showed little sense of Baroque style and the Berlioz was clumsy and unconvincing, especially the piano part. Even though it was originally written for piano, it is better known in the later orchestral version. The Montsalvatge was probably the most stylistically appropriate, though I don't know these songs or the composer.

So, a concert both puzzling and interesting. One wonders what sort of audience would enjoy both halves equally? The answer is pretty clear: the one that showed up! They seemed to enjoy everything and called for an encore. Anyone with a developed classical taste is going to be turned off by the second half, though. This is probably of little commercial concern as those with such a taste are fewer and fewer.

Here is a clip of the Montsalvatge, which I had not heard before. These are three of the five songs in a performance by a different countertenor than I heard last night: Darryl Taylor accompanied by Brent McMunn.

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