Dallas — The Jan. 15 performance at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House might not have been at the top of the list for most classical music regulars, but the singing, stage presence and showmanship of classical crossover tenor Mario Frangoulis was difficult to resist at several layers of musical sensibility. David Itkin, Music Director/Conductor of the Abilene Philharmonic Orchestra and Director of Orchestral Studies at the University of North Texas College of Music, conducted a small orchestra and Texas Christian University’s Angela Turner Wilson played the part of the “special guest” soprano. The concert was presented as part of the Centennial Celebration of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.
Most in attendance at the concert were obvious fans of the Greek singer as evidenced by the cheer he induced by walking out on stage. While it was nice to see a few of the faces familiar from Dallas Arts District classical offerings, a strikingly youthful audience was present. One could quickly lose track of the number of mobile devices capturing large chunks of the performance for a digital souvenir. If this was happening in a different context, it could have been distracting. This evening it seemed to fit perfectly with the ad hoc lighting design on stage.
Frangoulis has a simply beautiful voice. Enjoying a live performance of this sound was worth the price of admission. But he has more than this. His ability to rivet the adoration of the audience to his every motion was stunning. We were witnessing a person taking on the part of a Greek tenor who has a compelling personal story that everyone wants to invite to Sunday dinner. In projecting this persona he was convincing. This is something never seen in the hard-core classical concerts.
Angela Turner Wilson joined in this theatrical effort, providing us with a gorgeous rendition of “O Mio Babbino Caro.” Unfortunately, her part called for a submissive and inferior female. She is a serious talent with many impressive credits to her name, but Frangoulis’ on-stage reference to having “discovered” her was demeaning. During duets, her microphone level was significantly lowered. This had the effect of a strong, masculine voice completely dominating a weaker, feminine accompanist. Wilson’s superb voice deserved better than this.
Crowd pleasers such as Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” and Steve Wood’s “Vincero, Perdero” were well placed, breaking the concert up into manageable bites. The most interesting music came after the end of the program; his encores included some Greek tunes familiar to many in the audience. Even some dancing was thrown in for good measure. This made it worth staying past 10 o’clock to hear and see.
Itkin is to be commended for his stamina, holding the small pick-up orchestra in a moderato 4/4 for nearly two-and-a-half hours. Anyone with a normal attention span would have drifted off and let the music take care of itself. Not Itkin. Occasional glimpses to check in on him found a conductor dutifully calling every entrance and musical change, as little as it mattered with the over-amplified ensemble. That the quality of the orchestra sound would have been a million times better without amplification is a conservative estimate. The listener was at the mercy of the sound board operator rather than the judgment of the musicians themselves. The sound was stuffy and plagued by extraneous microphone noises.
The question of audience engagement is often brought up as means of grappling with the clear changes we are seeing in today’s art music scene. There is no question that something had motivated a very un-classical audience to this evening’s performance. No adventure or surprise in the music was noticeable, and it was not particularly stimulating to hear hours of the same musical language repeated continuously. But those who came to this performance wanted or even needed this. To hear the same pieces recorded on CDs Frangoulis pitched between each song was an essential part of the balance between expectation and experience. Today’s audiences are fine with this informality. Why much of the classical music world is not on board with this is a great mystery. The history of our music is filled with overlapping and competing modes of musical expression. The objection by the practitioners of the waning styles to more “secular,” “simpler,” or “perverse” means of expression is a strong, rich tradition in and of itself. Even though classical crossover music has been around for some time, Frangoulis represents an interesting alternative to the typical concert experience. And he makes a strong case for it.