My voice teacher for many years, Phyllis Peterson, a mezzo with many Carmen performances under her belt, often said that in spite of the tenor usually being the romantic lead in operas, she always preferred to go home with the baritone. Her husband, baritone Robert Peterson, would just smile.
Years ago, “The Three Tenors” made a big splash, and even though those guys were probably the top three opera tenors in the world, and all at the top of their skills (or nearly so), it was a terrible show. The egos and natural competition between them overshadowed the music so much that for me, it was unbearable.
Saturday night in Bellevue, Washington, at the Resonance in SOMA Towers, I heard three excellent baritones sing a joint program of songs, arias, and even a couple of opera scenes, as well as a nice variety of Christmas pieces. Although they gave each other a lot of good banter, it was the music that was most important to each of them, and it showed. The singers were Brian James Myer, Gabriel Preisser and Nathan Stark, who is technically a bass-baritone. At the piano was the wonderful David McDade, principal coach at Seattle Opera.
They opened with the Toreador Song from Carmen, passing the verses among them as they would a carafe of wine at a party. Nobody got left out, and nobody was outdone by the others. Then they did a set of Christmas songs, beginning with “Fröliche Weinacht überall”, a lusty traditional German carol sung by Nathan, “Gesu Bambino” sung by Gabriel, and my favorite Russian-Jewish-Christmas song, “White Christmas”, sung by Brian.
Then they took a perfectly nice, romantic ballad from Camelot, and turned it into a hilarious satire on the cliche of every romantic pop singer who sings to a selected lady in the audience as an attempt to rev the motors of all the ladies in the audience. Kudos to Peggy who was daft enough to volunteer to be the center of their attention. “If Ever I Would Leave You” has never been funnier. It was followed with Brian and Gabriel singing the delightfully edgy and rapid “Agony” duet from “Into the Woods” by Sondheim, which was the first of several pieces for two baritones from the opera and musical theatre repertoire.
After Nathan deftly sang the Catalog Aria (“Madamina”) from “Don Giovanni” by Mozart, Brian sang probably the last aria anyone would expect in a Christmas concert: “Tanzlied des Pierrot” from “Die Tote Stadt” by Korngold. (The title of the opera means “The Dead City”!) Having sung that aria at a concert only three days earlier (in the first of my “2nd Annual Farewell Tour” concerts), it certainly stood out in the program, and was especially fun for me. He didn’t explain the song, which was good, but he didn’t pull any punches with the music, either, which was wonderful.
After “Leise rieselt der Schnee”, a lovely traditional German carol in a three part harmony setting written by Brian, Nathan did a delightfully silly imitation of Elvis in “Blue Christmas” with the other guys hamming it up as the backup singers.
During intermission, I learned from the other folks around me that none of them knew any of the singers and were there because they had simply read about it in The Seattle Times. After the concert, Nathan told me that it took several phone calls to get the paper to mention it. Yay for him for being persistent, and yay for them for coming!
Gabriel didn’t come out with the others after the intermission, and as they wondered where he might be, they told David that he should just play something while we were waiting. So, he started playing the intro to “Largo al Factotum” from “The Barber of Seville”, making it no big surprise to me when Gabriel came in through a side door as the bragging barber. What was a surprise, was that woven within the quite difficult aria was a blatant commercial for their CD, “Christmas Around the World”. This could have been way over the top, but comedy always has that risk, and he nailed it. Besides being musically on target, hearing the commercial pleas skilfully scattered among the Italian lyrics at a breakneck speed was a real kick!
The breakneck lyrics continued in the next piece which was the “Cheti, cheti immantinente” duet from “Don Pasquale” by Donizetti, with Brian and Nathan. This is probably the main reason I’m a terrible reviewer: I have way too much fun at concerts! As this piece is intended to do, it brought belly laughs and cheers from the audience, including me.
Now for something completely different: Brian sang “There But For You Go I” from “Brigadoon”, which I sang in my “1st Annual Farewell Tour” three years ago. It is a great song, and he presented it directly, and with heart.
Gabriel then took another turn into comedy with “Where Is the Life of Late I Led?!” from “Kiss Me Kate”. The song lists a number of ladies with whom the character had been romantically entangled, and he wandered through the audience pointing them out and singing directly to them, to their delighted surprise.
Brian’s three-part a capella arrangement of the familiar carol “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” was a musical highlight for me. The melody sometimes changed from one voice to another mid-phrase, and though that shouldn’t have worked, it did work, because of the skill applied by those voices with subtlety and loving care.
A Christmas concert with this variety has almost no chance of getting out the door without a rendition of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)” by Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Yes, I sang it in my program earlier that week, and though Nathan did a nice job with it, I was struck by how nice and original the piano accompaniment was. After the concert, I asked David where he had gotten the arrangement, and it turns out to be the exact same as the one I had used. He said something about perhaps having “made up some of it”. Yeah, right.
The end of the concert was the finale from “Don Giovanni” with Nathan as the statue of the Commendatore, Brian as Leporello, and Gabriel as Don Giovanni. I love that piece; Giovanni finally gets sent to hell. Ah, sweet justice. However, as I told the guys after the concert, I really missed seeing the demons drag him off.
Their encore of “O Holy Night” was a very nice finish to a really enjoyable evening.
Most of their Christmas songs also appear on their CD, but after listening to the CD, I would also like to have heard Brian sing “Petit Papa Noël” by Raymond Vincy & Henri Martinet. This is a French song I’d not heard before, and now I love it.
This was one of the best examples of what a voice recital could be and at times should be. First, there was a wide variety of first rate music performed with professional integrity and skill. Second, there was also music that both aunt Jenny and uncle Fred and their bowling buddies would love, too. In other words, it included at least some music that was instantly accessible by anyone. If you tell your audience they aren’t smart enough to “get” your music, you deserve to not have an audience. However, not everyone can or should do comedy, at least not without a good coach and perhaps even a director. You also must pay very close attention to your audience and their responses.
Also, by swapping in some non-holiday music for the Christmas songs, this kind of program can be done any time of year, and (with a little planning, some publicity, and one or two rehearsals with a top accompanist) it can be done in any city where the guys happen to show up. Every actor in the country has, or should have, a “one-man/one-woman show” in his or her back pocket so they have something to work on and to make a little money with when they are out of work, which is, by the way, inevitable for both actors and singers. Every singer should have a voice recital in their back pocket for the same reasons. However, it absolutely cannot be an academic recital that only your professors back in college would love. It MUST be a program with a wide appeal that respects and appreciates your audience where they are, and draws them toward more of the “good stuff”.
My only complaint for this event would be the printed programs. Black and gold print on dark red paper? I couldn’t read it until I got home and put it under some harsh light. Another recital I went to this year had a pretty design, but used a type face that was too small for old eyes like mine to even see, let alone read. Who has the time and money to go to concerts? OLD PEOPLE DO! Be kind and invite them to enjoy the concert, and make sure the programs add to the total experience for everyone.
I’m not a fan of the separate sheets of translations unless you know you will have lots of professors or compulsive/obsessive folks there. Tell the audience what a song is about or provide a paraphrase of the text in the program, then let them just listen to the music and imagine what the meaning might be. This encourages your audience to be active, rather than passive, listeners.
Great show, guys!
© 2016 by Michael Kysar
All Rights Reserved.