Dallas — Even though it is only scheduled for once a year, for now, a formal art song series has finally come to Dallas. Sponsored by the Titus family, and with the considerable energy Sarah Titus behind it, the Dallas Opera's Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series has arrived. If you needed any proof that this is a welcome development, the nearly sold out house at the City Performance Hall should offer it to even the most grumpy skeptic.
This is not to say that the area is bereft of song recitals. The Cliburn Concerts series presents solo recitals and they include vocalists such as opera superstars Deborah Voigt and Nathan Gunn. A local art song group, Voces Intimae, has struggled lately, but seems to be on the road to recovery. However, a major art song series featuring singers with international reputations as a recitalist was an empty spot in the musical life of the area. It was ably filled on Saturday evening as the British tenor Ian Bostridge and collaborative pianist Wenwen Du took the stage for what proved to be a successful inaugural event.
The program included the original 12 song version of Schubert’s Die Winterreise (Winter's Journey). Keeping in the frigid category, we heard Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words. Charles Ives many songs are rarely performed, so it was nice to have a set on the program. Of them, some were serious while others were humorous. “Very Pleasant” featured a solo on a kazoo and“1,2, 3” is a setting of very short bit of doggerel wortyh of Dorothy Parker. He ended with some Noël Coward and Cole Porter songs. From Coward, we heard “Twentieth-Century Blues” and “The Party's Over.” Porter was represented by “Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye” (a last minute replacement for “Night and Day”).
Except for the two Ives songs, the repertoire for the evening was on the dour side. In fact, almost all of the songs were real downers dealing with misery, loneliness and the devastating effects of a lost love. Even the Coward and Porter selections were bittersweet, and while they could have been sung with a wry twist, they were three-hanky material in Bostridge's hands. It made for a doleful evening of beautiful singing of songs written in slow tempi to texts that ranged from unhappy to, in the case of the Schubert, neurotically miserable. The ovation at the end was mostly artistic admiration, but maybe part schadenfreude as well.
Bostridge's stage presence was unusual for a singer in concert. In fact, he looked like he was in the unobserved freedom of his coach's studio and not in front of an audience. From my seat's perspective, he only rarely looked out at the audience or tried to make eye contact. His eyes were mostly downward as he wandered around his confines at the crook of the piano. He weaved and waved his lanky body like a windsock. Other times. he appeared to be so overcome by emotion that he nearly swooned, catching himself on the piano with both hands. It was all a bit overwrought.
Vocally, his voice is pure honey. This is not an Italian pasta-n-meatballs tenor with a ringing “Nessun Dorma" type of voice. His is a refined British lyric instrument along the lines of a young Peter Pears. In fact, wisely, that is the repertoire that he sings. He was last heard in Dallas for the stunning performance of Britten's War Requiem with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He has complete control over the instrument and is able to sing quite forcefully as well a float a superb pianissimo. His pliable voice is capable of anything and he sometimes falls into mannerisms because of it. He turns his vibrato on and off like a spigot and allows some notes to swell just past the line into exaggeration.
His diction was difficult to understand. The German lacked the aggressive consonants that is so characteristic of lieder singers of the past, like Hermann Prey, whose final “t” was a planet of its own. His English, of course, had a British accent and I freely admit that I have trouble understanding that even on Downton Abbey.
Wenwen Du proved to be a marvelous and supportive presence at the piano. When the audience started to applaud at the end of the first of the Schubert set, she immediately launched the second song in a manner that told the audience, in no uncertain therms, that they should wait until the set was over. In doing so, she cut about 20 minutes off of the running time. Brava to her. She also caught the diverse styles of the composers in a most effective manner, even more so than Bostridge in the Porter song.
It seems that critics are always carping about reading furnished texts in dark theaters, and that complaint must be lodged again. This is especially true when the songs are not in the vernacular. Schubert's songs are expressive of every word and hearing them without complete understand greatly diminishes the enjoyment of the artist's carefully prepared performance. Further, an art song is like a mini-opera, telling a story, and since this was under the jurisdiction of the Dallas Opera, projected subtitles would have made a big difference.
All of these quibbles shouldn't detract from the historic importance of this recital and, more importantly, the overwhelming response it engendered. This was an intelligent and highly musical performance by two excellent artists. A new performing arts series couldn't have asked for more.
How about twice, maybe three, times a year next season? Please?