Carnegie Hall 2018-19 Season Review: J’Nai Bridges

By Logan Martell

On Dec. 13, 2018, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges made her debut at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, joined by pianist Mark Markham. The evening’s program was a fascinating mix of spiritual and classical selections, which showcased not just Bridges’ artistry, but her passion as well.

The First Half

Starting the evening’s recital was William G. Fischer’s “I’d Love to Tell the Story.” Bridges began with a gentle presence in her voice, with her body almost demurring away from the audience and towards the piano. As she sang the praises of the text, her body took on a bolder posture as if riding the wave of inspired faith. While Bridges possesses a lovely classical quality in her mezzo-soprano, she made great use of her lower register and huskier tones to give a pleasing finish to the number.

Her third selection, “Margaret’s Lullaby” by Richard Danielpour, saw Bridges deliver affectionate crooning as she interacted with the sights she saw before her: “Bad things, far away, Pretty things, here to stay, Sweet baby, smile at me, Lovely baby, go to sleep.” As the song progressed, Bridges softly leaned over the piano as a mother would peer into a cradle; by singing into the piano, Bridges’ voice took on a dreamy reverberation without having to sacrifice the soft dynamic. Following this was the traditional song “To Be Baptized,” as arranged by Undine S. Moore. This last spiritual of the first half was given with jubilant fervor, though there were instances where her constants were softened, such as in the repeating phrase “take me to the water!”

Pivoting to the classical side of the evening’s program, Bridges sang Gustav Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder.” This selection allowed Bridges to show an aggrieved sonority to contrast the earlier joy. The fifth of these lieder “In this weather, this roaring wind,” opened with a flurry of light and airy notes from the accompaniment, evoking the storm described as ripping a woman’s children from her. Here, Bridges illuminated the text with a distanced intensity that opened up powerfully as she shifted from the idea of having lost her children to the idea of her children gaining God’s protection. This made for a powerful and poignant close to the first half of the recital.

The Second Half

After the intermission, the selections by Bridges mirrored the earlier half, beginning with the cycle of Ravel’s “Sheherazade,” before returning to a handful of spirituals. In the opening phrases of “Asia,” Bridges unfolded the captivating imagery while floating around the lower reaches of her register, taking the audience on a sensuous journey as she explored each idea which began with the words “Je voudrais.” Third in this cycle, “L’indifferent,” carried a flirtatious charge through Bridges’ body language, and the spoken quality that added a conversational flair.

Bringing things back to Spirituals was Shawn Okpebholo’s “Oh, Glory,” featuring jazzy chords, and lyrics which Bridges’ bestowed with soulful ornamentations. The crooning rhythm found in phrases such as “There is room enough in paradise,” created an atmosphere of ease and welcome. The sense of promise being evoked was matched in the accompaniment as the underlying dissonance of its chords seemed to melt its way towards resolution through a series of inversions. Next was Margaret Bonds’ “Minstrel Man,” which sets to music text from poet Langston Hughes. This number was brief and more contemplative, with the perspective of a saddened entertainer which Bridges conveyed through rueful lyricism. The phrases succinctly outlined pain which laid beneath a happier surface, such as “Because my feet are dancing you do not know I die.”

Pulling herself, and the audience, from those heavier thoughts, Bridges followed the previous number with the traditional song “Plenty of Good Room,” with a personal arrangement by Bridges and Markham. Totally at ease in the bouncier rhythm, her energy quickly took root in the audience as they clapped along. The softer shift towards the end of this number made the tempo and power of the final song, John Carter’s “Ride on King Jesus,” all the more impactful. Here Bridges soared over the rapid, galloping accompaniment provided by Markham, the two working in tandem to deliver a triumphant end to the program of her Carnegie Hall debut.

The Encore

This evening saw only one encore from Bridges, but one that is a signature of mezzo-sopranos: the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen.” This encore was highly entertaining not only for Bridges’ vocal prowess, but the fun energy she exuded as she directed the flirtatiousness of the recitative towards Markham. Carrying an armful of roses with her, Bridges was both sultry and striking as she sang; one moment saw her focused upon one member of the audience, only to whimsically toss a rose to another. After exulting in the final “prends garde a tois,” the final beat of the number was met with Bridges returning the love she had received throughout the evening’s recital by tossing the rest of the roses into the audience.

Demonstrating her versatility, interpretation, and passion for performing, J’Nai Bridges undoubtedly created an impression that will have audiences talking for quite some time to come as she takes her talents to future roles.


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