Review: Polenzani & Drake at the Terrace Theater: Easeful Glory

I went to tenor Matthew Polenzani and pianist Julius Drake’s recital last night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, and as I said to a friend as I left–concerts like that make you believe in art song again. One in the series presented by Vocal Arts DC (full disclosure: for whom I write and volunteer) comes on the heels of fine performances by this season’s previous singers–including an adventuresome concert focused on music of WWI  in December.

Sometimes things click at a level that goes beyond fine performance, however, and a recital becomes a complete experience through some alchemy of musicianship, vocal and instrumental polish, nuanced understanding of great repertoire and that x-factor, call it charisma that connects performers and listeners. What ever the mix of these and other ineffable factors, they were aligned last night and the result was the most artistically satisfying recital the series has presented in years (maybe ever), and I’ve been going since its inception in the early 90s.

Kennedy_CenterIt helps that Polenzani has a gorgeous voice and Drake a golden piano tone (yes, I am of the view that individual pianists can summon distinct colors, whatever the instrument–I realize that’s a controversial position). But they both have even more gorgeous artistry. This came out in countless ways, the gentle and unfussy approach to Liszt’s rich piano textures (the note per measure coefficient to this music is a big number and the results are often thick and showy, but not in Drake’s hands). And for Polenzani: one remarkable thing after another–two picked among many would be the ease with which he spun out soft lines, and his ability to unfolded and refold a perfectly calibrated mesa di voce, where the voice gathers outwards and then inwards getting louder and softer with no loss of beauty or richness. It takes breath control, plus superb technique, and many singers learn to do it more or less, but it’s not something I have heard used with this kind of meaning and expressiveness on the recital stage in a very long time.

And finally, words…a song recital is a species of poetry reading: the sounds and meanings of the words are realized in music and illuminate an idea. (That’s true in opera too, but there is so much falderal going on and the words are so often risible that you end up not really noticing them unless they are by DaPonte ). There wasn’t one unimportant word last night–nothing fluffed, forgotten or missed, in a program that was sung from memory. In particular, the French selections, Liszt, Ravel, and Satie, were a wonder.  “Oh! Quand je dors,” a Hugo setting with arching ardor and quiet embraces seemed to stop time–and for once was a conversation, not some over emotional greeting card. The Satie songs, which personified a bronze frog and the Mad Hatter, and told the quirky tale of a tree with sorrowing birds were a little like zen stand up comedy. Barber’s “Hermit Songs” closed the program, and they too were like being let in on a set of subtle secrets, pulling you in to a private world where things are said to the wind, or the cat.

Performances like this happen when you pay attention to the details, are not afraid to sing and play softly, drop your worry about presenting “the voice” or “bringing off the big moments” and just open the palm of your hand and make music–your audience gets to stop worrying about listening for “the voice” as well. You don’t miss anything, as you are present and inside listening for something that is being said this way, just this once.

The first of three encores, “La barcheta” of Hahn embodied this inwardness  to an almost giddy degree. Every moment was subtle, sung with long tapered breaths that curled around the seductive lines with ease, and conjured a lingering dream of Venice on a cold DC night. Bravo!

Arthur R. Smith is a mostly recovered music critic who still relapses occasionally. He is also a program annotator for Vocal Arts DC.

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