Fort Worth — Besides voices of world-class caliber and a carefully chosen collection of rep, what makes a collaborative vocal recital all the more special is the chemistry between the artists—how the distinguishing aspects of one instrument can at once complement and challenge those of the other, how the musicians harmonize, not only tonally, but also through the dynamics of their personalities working in perfect counterpoint.
This is what makes tenor Lawrence Brownlee and bass-baritone Eric Owens a duo worth seeing. Together with pianist Craig Terry, they opened The Cliburn’s concert series with a joint recital at the Kimbell Art Museum Piano Pavilion this weekend. Their easy, natural rapport endeared audience members and added charm to their displays of vocalism, which are highly sought after. These musicians are internationally renowned, yet their appearance in Fort Worth was marked by humility, sincerity, and pure fun.
Act One of the event featured a collection of aria classics from some of the more popular works of Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, and others, with Brownlee and Owens switching on and off for solo roles and pairing together for a few duets. Owens opened the show with a hearty “Vedrò mentre io sospiro,” from Mozart’s comedy La Nozze di Figaro. (I should note here that they also made the artful choice of including the recitative passages before many of these arias, which made for an even more engaging performance.) Owens is stoic and measured in his execution, with a thunderous tone and rich, meaty timbre. In perfect complement, Brownlee countered with “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” from Gaetano Donizetti’s La fille du regiment. Brownlee is clearly right at home here, with an effortlessly bright bel canto that is energetic and precise, particularly with the nine or so high C’s in this ringing aria.
Owens held his own as he answered with “Infelice! E tuo credevi,” from Ernani by Giuseppe Verdi. His Silvio is smooth and deep in tone and feeling, ending with a resonant low A-flat that left the rafters vibrating. It was most entertaining to watch the pair interact in the light and humorous duet, “Voglio dire, lo stupendo elisir,” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amoure. Their characterization here is appropriately light and appealing. Brownlee continues with an aria from that same work, perhaps it’s greatest hit, “Una furtive lagrima,” which is a gorgeously somber contrast to the bouncing joviality of the previous pieces.
After Owens nails Charles Gounod’s “La veau d’or” from Faust, along with glorious accompaniment from Terry, the first half is closed with two numbers from Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. The closing duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” called for technical precision from Owens higher baritone range and was a triumphant finish to the aria portion of the concert.
The second half was marked by a collection of traditional spirituals, American standards, and gospel favorites, with many pieces arranged by Terry. Audience members were treated with his artful playing and thoughtful interpretation on numbers like “Song of Songs” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
This segment felt deeply more personal and direct, and rightfully so. Brownlee opened with “All Night, All Day,” which he nicknamed “Caleb’s Song,” after his son Caleb. His approach to the piece was careful, meaningful, and pointed.
The artists had numerous moments of sincerity and impact as they weaved in and out of jazzy, upbeat pop, like the standard “Lulu’s Back In Town,” also arranged by Terry, and the more wrenching, weighty soulfulness of the traditional spiritual “Give Me Jesus,” which Owens delivered with a sensitivity that spilled out over the entire audience.
This section also included a change in the program. Owens did away with the tone-deaf and arguably sexist “Lollipops and Roses” by Tony Velona, saying, “Just look at the words and you’ll see why we changed it,” and instead performed the well-known “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The change was socially conscious and received well-deserved praise from the audience.
The concert, which ended with a beautifully arranged encore of “This Little Light of Mine,” garnered a roaring standing ovation. And it is also worth noting that the artists used the performance as an outreach opportunity, offering free tickets to local high-schools in order to increase exposure to young students who otherwise may never experience classical music in such a way. So, upon being so well-received by a rich combination of aficionados and newbies alike, Brownlee, Owens, and Terry did well to serve this community with a rousing weekend of expert artistry and a winning display of friendship.