Dallas — Voces Intimae, the Dallas-based organization dedicated to presenting art song concerts, is on an upward trajectory. Until recently, the group had run out of steam and, depending on who is talking, was about to close or was taking a breather. The effect was much the same as concerts and audiences diminished under changes of artistic administration.
Now, the artistic side is in the capable hands of Christian Bester, a young and dynamic baritone from South Africa. The Board of Directors has members that are leaders in the musical life of the city, with the indomitable Karen Moyer as the president. All this boded well for their annual gala on Saturday evening when they presented bass-baritone Donnie Ray Albert, who sings in opera houses around the world, as the star attraction.
The serviceable venue was the parish hall of the The Cathedral Church of Saint Matthew, the official seat of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. What it lacked in the elegance usually associated with gala events, was made up for by the efforts of the committee who worked hard to create a memorable evening. Some very drinkable wines complemented catered finger food bites that ranged from stuffed crostini to miniature biscuits with a slice of fillet mignon as a filling. The silent auction was a dream for singers, offering sessions with some of the area's most distinguished voice teachers and coaches. Restaurant meals, fine wines as well as handmade jewelry and knitted items rounded out the offering.
While all this was well and good, it was the appearance of Albert that was the real draw of the evening. Albert is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and sings opera internationally with all of the major houses. He is as famous for his portrayal of Porgy in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess as he is for his interpretation of the evil Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca or the leading role in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. He is also a frequent recitalist.
His program featured a set of songs based on the poems of Langston Hughes, by African-American composers, male and female, that are not well known these days. However, they are a distinguished group of trailblazers.
Florence Price was a student of George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1907, when there were few women students of any race in attendance. She also made history when Frederick Stock conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in her Symphony in E minor in 1933. She was a mentor to Margaret Bonds (1913–1972), who received a master's degree from Northwestern and later studied with Roy Harris. Howard Swanson(1909-1978) was very close to Langston Hughes and his settings of his poetry are considered to have the inside track to the poet’s life and thought process. Leslie Adams (b. 1933), who studied at Oberlin College and received a Ph.D from Ohio State in 1973, is equally well known as a music educator. The multi-gifted Robert Owens was born in Denison, Texas, in 1925, but spent most of his professional career in Germany, although his biography also lists teaching at SMU. He is a concert pianist, composer and also a stage actor. Owens was also a close friend of Langston Hughes.
Also on the program was one of Wagner's most beautiful arias, “O Du Mein Holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser. Albert closed the formal set of the program with a selection from one of his signature roles, “I Got Plenty o' Nuttin’" from Porgy and Bess. After a break, a second group of songs, mostly spirituals, closed the program.
Albert has a stupendous voice of galactic size. There is no way to describe the huge, deep, perfectly place and resonant sound that comes out of his burley body. It is as if he is surrounded by an invisible shower stall. At full tilt, it made the walls of the very large room virtually vibrate as his voice filled every cubic meter. But he is also able to pull it down to a lyrical soft and floating pianissimo, which is surprising in such a big voice.
However glorious his vocal gifts, Albert also delivers the message of the poetry with a conviction born of a strong understanding of every word as well as a solid concept of the overall story the poet is telling. Yet he never over-sings, over-acts or over-emotes. On the contrary, his impact comes from not doing any of these things. For example, his version of Porgy's happy-go-lucky credo was right in tempo throughout, including his “no use complaining,” which he tossed off with a shrug. We are used to hearing it exaggerated and taking it out of tempo. “Acted,” as it were.
He ended with “Ol' Man River” from Oscar Hammerstein II and Kern's Show Boat, as a tribute to Paul Robeson, for whom the song was written. In a twist of fate, Robeson was unavailable for the original 1927 production, but he sang the role of Joe frequently thereafter and the song became a trademark.
In his opening remarks before singing it, Albert made a reference to the change of the lyrics to eliminate the N word and sang the version used in the 1972 London production: “Here we all work on the Mississippi.” But this single word change in one line of the song mattered not at all as we sat mesmerized by Albert's performance. We hardly knew what to marvel at most: the honesty of his heart-rending interpretation or immensity of the remarkable instrument he possess.
Moment of Geek: There have been many different substitutions for the N word in Show Boat, which is actually the first word in the show—from “colored folk” to “darkies”—as well as Albert's choice. In the local revival of the show by the ever-adventurous Lyric Stage in Irving, all of the African-American actors reportedly held a private meeting to decide what to do about the N word. They decided to use it, we were told, in tribute to its original intent—to show the hard life of African-Americans at the time the show is set, as well as the cruelty and derision with which they were treated. For 1927, the show was amazingly progressive. It dealt with interracial marriage as well as mixed-race people and the vexing problem as “passing” for white. There are no right answers to this conundrum, especially when just singing the song out of the context of the show. The N word itself has such a shock value, that it is unusable in a recital. Albert's very genteel substitution is an elegant solution.