Monday, May 16, 2011

Paul Appleby at the Kennedy Center

Vocal Arts DC presented up n' coming tenor Paul Appleby with pianist Steven Blier last night, hot off his run in the Luisi-DiDonato-Urmana Ariadnes at the Met, where he is in the Lindemann Young Artist Development program (you want buzz? at least one parterre chat room lurker called out his Brighella during the b-cast last week).
Appleby boasts a warm, very fresh sounding tenor of moderate weight that is always appealing and frequently striking. In this rewarding program of off-the-beaten-path songs, he also demonstrated a wide ranging musical intelligence. Steven Blier, his voice coach and collaborator (nice profile by Justin Davidson here), served as a robust and fascinating partner at the piano, if the balance was perhaps a shade more competitive than I find ideal.
The opening set presented three unfamiliar Italian songs from Verdi, Mascagni, and Pedrotti. These were hard to dislike, given their natural fit for Appleby's voice and his engaging sense of Italian style. Yet, perhaps a casualty of their lead billing, his sound was also frequently unfocused and and a bit careless. The following two sets, songs by Zemlinsky and Roussel, were the meatiest of the program, and Appleby made a persuasive case--particularly in the anxious eroticism of the Roussel numbers.
Perhaps the strongest selections opened the second half, however--Latin American songs by Carols Guastavino, Carlos Lopez-Buachardo, Pixiguinha, Piazzolla, and Villa Lopez. Here Appleby offered an exquisitely controlled and seductive sound, as well as thrilling climaxes, as in the penultimate showstopper, Villa-Lobos' "Samba Classico". I find, when listening to vocal recitals, that the degree to which I ignore the translations can be a sort of perverse indicator of how well things are going: I can assure you I have basically have no idea what's going on in these Latin pieces.
Unfortunately, the American songs which closed the program were decidedly less successful. The one art song in the set, "Evening Song" by Griffes, was overstuffed and forgettable (not entirely Appleby's fault, to be sure). In the remainder, jazz/standard selections by Gershwin, Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and Thelonious Monk ("'Round Midnight" with appended lyrics) Appleby fell short of the crucial test for opera singers doing pop/rock/what have you: whether a reasonable person can forget they would rather be hearing a native pop/show interpreter doing the song. Appleby's voice didn't stop sounding great, of course, but his interpretations are as yet contrived--jazz/pop affectations artfully arranged rather than attempts at real communication.
Things did not improve in the two somewhat indulgent encores--a rather twee rendition of Bruce Springteen's "Fire" and a take on Paul Simon's "American Tune" that substituted generic pop dramatics for that song's haunting humility.
Update: Here's Downey in the Post with a mixed review (though not so bad as the title implies).

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