Carnegie Hall 2017-18 Review: Baritones Launch “Remember” Album with Powerful Performance

By Logan Martell

On May 22, 2018, Roven Records celebrated the release of its newest album, “Remember,” with a recital and launch party at Carnegie Hall. The album features work from composers such as Benjamin C.S. Boyle, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, Lori Laitman, and Glen Roven; all performed by some of opera’s most promising young baritones.

In describing what makes the baritone voice so appealing, Artistic Director Michael Brofman of Brooklyn Art Song Society says: “The baritone voice is something special: in a great singer the lowest notes have undeniable heft, while the high register possesses a clarion power. The timbre has an inherent darkness that’s alluring, but is also capable of a certain sweetness, made that much more poignant in contrast to its usual quality….

…One forgets that the baritone hasn’t been around all that long: it’s really the creation of the Bel Canto tradition of the mid-to-late nineteenth century…. Starting with Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, the demands on the lower voice started getting stretched, and these composers began writing higher and higher notes for the “low” voices. By the time Verdi was at his peak in craft, he was regularly demanding high G’s and A’s from male singers, and it was clear that a new technique was needed, which was neither bass nor tenor. Thus was born the modern baritone, with his unique combination of a brandished lower register as well as high notes that could bring the house down.”

A Spirited Start

After an opening statement from Glen Roven, the night began with a particularly delightful tribute to the lower fachs titled “Ouverture dei Baritoni,” and performed by bass Branch Fields and baritones Kyle Pfortmiller and Robert Wesley Mason. This madcap medley, arranged by Roven and played by pianist Andrew Rosenblum, featured snippets from some of the most famous arias and show tunes for basses and baritones. Among them “Non piu andrai” from “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Madamina! Il Catalogo e questo” from “Don Giovanni,” “If ever I would Leave You” from “Camelot,” “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific,” and more. Roven’s arrangement really began to shine when the speedy patter of “Largo al factotum” from “The Barber of Seville” ran in counterpoint with the lofty lyricism of “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.” The overture neared its conclusion when the piano slowed to the trotting chords of “Votre Toast” from Bizet’s “Carmen” and the soloists reconvened to deliver a rapturous “l’amour t’attend.”

From the Album

First from the new album “Remember” was Tobias Greenhalgh, accompanied by Michael Brofman to perform  the cycle “Four Surreal Songs” by Glen Roven, which adapts poetry from Paul Eluard.” The first, “Arc of Your Eyes,” begins with a repeating, almost-obsessive melodic theme as Greenhalgh begins to cast his vocal spell. This number lists all the experiences that, while lovely in their own right, mean nothing to the singer since they were not seen by the eyes of his beloved. Greenhalgh shines a light on Roven’s evocative translation from the poem’s original French, with alliterative lines such as “Scents hatched from a clutch of dawns that rest forever on the straw of stars…” The second number “Ecstasy” begins with a flood of light, driving chords which accompany the near-patter of Greenhalgh’s delivery of the lyrics, which itself races to describe a land of tempting possibilities. This tempo takes a sudden downturn towards the end of the phrase “Where mirror mist where mirrors clear, reflecting two nude bodies…” After exploring the beauty of this land, Greenhalgh recapitulates, and the tempo returns to how it began. The last phrase “I am in front of this feminine land like a branch in the fire,” highlights the danger of all the land’s beauty, which Greenhalgh punctuates with a satisfied smile.

The third of Greenhalgh’s set, “The Bull’s Ear,” was a brief number at one-and-a-half minutes. Lyrically, it was comprised of rather strange phrases, such as “Heavy clouds, sunshine helps, pain of the bloody farmers, the logo of the cow, the bull is under the sword of the wind.” Musically, I found it interesting due to its repeating use of quadruplets in a staggering rhythm, conjuring up the approach of a four-legged animal. Transitioning from the tumult of “The Bull’s Ear,” the fourth song, “End of Monster,” felt like a synthesis of the emotions presented in the previous songs. It also saw Greenhalgh return to the more entrancing tone from “Arc of Your Eyes,” evidenced by how he croons out the line “You ought to see yourself die.”

Next from the selections of “Remember” was barrel-chested baritone Steven LaBrie, accompanied by Adam Nielsen, who displayed his ability to soar into the higher register of his voice while still carrying the rich timbre of a classic baritone. Lori Laitman’s piece “The Joy of Uncreating,” paints a picture spanning from a black hole devouring light to its filtering down to earth between trees. The light and airy arpeggios were filled with LaBrie’s voice as he detailed it all with grand, almost stately diction. And while the cosmic events described suggest darker tidings, the mundane carried more pleasant nuances; “some joy moving us toward the end.” LaBrie’s set also included four French poems from Benjamin C.S. Boyle’s “Le passage des reves.” These numbers flowed rather quickly from one to the other, but they nonetheless bore a gem of lyrical beauty which was further polished by LaBrie’s elegant weaving of vowels.

After the sheer power of LaBrie’s set came the sentimental charm of Jarrett Ott, himself accompanied by Danny Zelibor, who sang a selection from Jake Heggie’s “Of Laughter and Farewell,” which adapts the poetry of Vachel Lindsay. The first, “Under the Blessing of your Psyche Wings,” describes the perception of a man who suddenly finds himself receiving the very love and support he gave to a frail lover, on a night when his own strength comes undone. This newfound vulnerability is captured in the lines “So soothed I half-forget the world gone mad- And all the winds of war are now unheard.” While, lyrically, all seems joyous, there are spacious, open chords that tend to lead into dark, grittier ones from the piano’s lower reaches; the uneasy silence between them is filled by creeping passing tones. Ott’s hesitant phrasing supports the text and his growing awareness of his own weakness, climaxing with the phrase “And yet I come tonight a helpless guest…” Ott finishes the lyrics with a delivery bearing sickly-sweet ornamentation on the closing phrase “Against the pallor of your wondrous breast.” The dark chords and creeping tones make one final return before Ott begins to hum within the strange expanse; vulnerable, and yet at peace.

The second number from Ott’s set, “By the Spring, at Sunset,” begins with a simpler, more grounded melody. The lyrics detail the fond memories of a wanderer far from home and his lover. This melodic walk down memory lane soon builds into something grander, along with Ott’s ornamentation, almost running away with itself during the phrase “Make bold my soul for some new, wise delight.” It then returns to its first melodic theme as Ott takes a breath outside his world of nostalgia, but still bearing the feeling of his lover’s kiss upon his lips. This song is also finished with humming, this time as a tender resolution to the one found in the last number.

All of this made for a highly exciting evening that honors the past traditions of operatic music while providing a showcase for today’s most exciting soloists and composers. From the performance given, audiences won’t soon forget this cycle of songs.


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