Lincoln Center’s American Songbook 2019 Review: Joyce DiDonato, “Songplay”

A Delightful Evening Of Classics With A Spin

By Logan Martell

On March 4, 2019, Joyce DiDonato’s Songplay tour brought her to Lincoln Center’s Appel Room for a night of opera classics and jazz standards. Joining her were the album’s collaborators, pianist and arranger Craig Terry, bassist Chuck Israels, drummer Jimmy Madison, with Lautaro Greco on the bandoneon, and Charlie Porter on the trumpet; these all-stars span a vast body of genres, yet they were all gathered on a single stage for a night of musical freedom.

Of her new Songplay album, DiDonato writes: “Every beginning voice student knows the routine: you walk through the austere door – trepidatiously, mind you, and often questiong your very existence – and the skeptical teacher hands you their copy of the yellowed, overly used ‘singer’s bible,’ the ‘Twenty-Four Songs and Arias.’ The cover, usually torn and hanging by a thread, aims to end the suspense of whether your vocal fate will be forever sealed as belonging to the ‘high’ or ‘low’ categories. Regardless, this feels like ‘IT…’ So returning to them years later (ok, even decades later!) I’m overwhelmed by the charm and the sweetness and the innocence that exudes from their stained, yellow pages! They call me back again – but this time with a bold invitation to play, to invent, to celebrate a great song. Their overarching theme defiantly bridges the centuries and lines up with the eternal motif we’ve all been singing of through the years: LOVE.”

Soul and Song  

Opening this evening’s concert was Giuseppe Giordani’s “Caro mio ben.” After giving the first stanza of the text a beautiful, classical opening, Joyce and Terry smoothly shifted to a jazzier rhythm, with the accompaniment having lush chord voicings and a number of skillful fills and runs. This first number encapsulated the sentiment behind DiDonato’s new album, taking the repertory classics and breathing into them a fresh, and highly-fun vitality. After this was Giulio Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella.” Bearing a more languid mood, DiDonato and Terry were joined by Chuck Israels, whose grounded bass line made a rich contrast with the gentle arpeggios from Terry’s accompaniment, and DiDonato’s extended phrases.

Next on the evening’s program was Allie Wrubel’s jazz standard “(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over.” Here, DiDonato used a loftier quality of voice more typical of opera; while she deftly blended the styles together, the natural ease with which she performed this feat was masked by the sense of rueful wonder which DiDonato was wrapped within. Speaking of wonder, this song saw the first of a number of solos that were to be enjoyed that evening; often finding a place between the verse and chorus of the songs, these soulful bouts of sound did not fail in garnering applause that night.

Following Enrique Delfino’s “Griseta,” a solo number for the bandoneon played by Lautaro Greco, was Jerry Bock’s touching “Will He Like Me?” from the musical “She Loves Me.” The uncertainty of the lyrics, so full of hopes and doubts, was explored in vivid detail as DiDonato immersed herself into the song’s dramatic context. As these feelings welled, each soloist began to play with conflicting sounds and textures that expertly conjured the impression of a mind at the mercy of too many thoughts and emotions. A quick, powerful shift brought these instruments together again for a unified conclusion, capped by DiDonato’s exulting formata that seemed to dispel any and all romantic doubts.

Shimmering through Sorrows

Despite this, the next few songs on the program were of a more dejected nature, as if pulling the rug out from under all the hope so powerfully made just moments before. This was deeply felt in Giuseppe Torelli’s “Tu lo sai,” which DiDonato gave with a wounded, but loving interpretation. Her honeyed, legato phrases were stirred up through the almost-biting way she rolled her ‘R’s; the brief lyrics, only 5 lines long, gave ample chances for repetition, which DiDonato illuminated differently with each revisiting. All the while for this number, the soft wailing of Charlie Porter’s trumpet added many layers of emotion and complexity. Porter also opened the following number, Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude.” After laying out all the romantic agonizing with a passionate energy, DiDonato ended this song with a pleading, almost dejected taper on the phrase “Send back my love;” DiDonato humorously dedicated this song to her high school years.

Following this was the instrumental number “There is No Greater Love,” by Isham Jones and Marty Symes. Here, Porter’s trumpet opening gave way to a bass solo from Israels, with the weighty rhythm of his bass line belied by the light dancing of his finger-work. This itself led into a rousing dialogue between the drums and trumpet and made for a highly-pleasing finish.

Riding this energy, DiDonato followed with Francesco Bartolomeo Conti’s “Quella fiamma che m’accende.” Her fierce delivery along with Greco’s passionate, driving bandoneon added an irresistible, Argentine flair. While most of this number carried a high texture, the ending saw DiDonato decrescendo into an extended coloratura run that built in speed until it rocketed away to a tremendous conclusion.

For Giovanni Paisello’s classic “Nel cor piu non mio sento,” the other soloists dropped out, leaving DiDonato to be backed by Terry’s lone piano accompaniment. The delicate chords and almost bashful expression she bore conjured up the impression of one in the earliest stages of their vocal instruction, but her delivery sounded very much like one revisiting a place from their childhood after spending many years away. This purity of tone continued even as DiDonato dove into her lower register on the end of the phrase “Amore e un certo che…” DiDonato and the band broke out of this shell quickly after with George Shearing’s standard “Lullaby of Birdland.” Taken just slightly above the tempo of the album’s recording, this number carried a fun energy that lasted even through the softer shifts at the beginning of each stanza. As DiDonato let loose, she displayed a number of breathtaking vocal techniques, such as a full, brassy growl as if imitating a trumpet, and a crescendo which soared to a staggering heights and vast resonance.

Bringing the evening concert to a close were two touching numbers, Gene Scheer’s “Lean Away,” and Richard Rodgers’ “With a Song in My Heart.” The first of these DiDonato dedicated to Dominick Argento and André Previn, whose recent deaths have been deeply felt throughout the world of classical music. This lovely tribute saw her relishing in the ideas of a beautiful unknowing painted by the text, with closing phrases such as “Some things can’t be known, like the love I feel for you, how it makes me feel home.” Terry’s accompaniment featured rising arpeggios and open chords which carried all of DiDonato’s feelings heavenward. The Last number of the program, “With a Song in My Heart,” started off with an elegant verse before she opened into a full, luxurious mezzo-soprano sound. The lyrics of Lorenz Hart, such as “With a song in my heart I behold your adorable face,” seemed to bloom with all sorts of meaning through DiDonato’s vocal instrument.

The final treat came in form of the encore, Edith Piaf’s beloved song “La Vie en Rose,” which saw an extended introduction from Greco and his captivating bandeoneon; yet for an introduction, this section carried a remarkable sense of closing and resolution, as if reflecting on the musical journey thus far. DiDonato lushly delivered the lyrics in French before switching to English halfway through, sounding comfortable in either language as the bass and drums joined in. The evening’s concert was brought to a lovely, gentle finish that placed a bow upon all the sound and passion heard over the course of the program. Joyce DiDonato’s Songplay tour still has one performance left on March 10, 2019, at Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium. While Songplay is available for purchase, audiences will not want to miss this last chance to hear these songs live.


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