Samuel Ramey, bass
Warren Jones, piano
Bass Samuel Ramey and pianist Warren Jones presented a recital Saturday evening at the Union Theater that by any measure was a huge success with the capacity audience. Ramey is quite clearly an operatic star of the first magnitude. He displays an easy-going but confident manner and has a relaxed but commanding stage presence. His voice is rich, resonant, invariably on-pitch, and able to carry easily into the farthest reaches of a large hall. I had previously heard him only in a televised performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, which I found very gratifying. In light of all that, I expected more than came through in this recital. Reconciling expectation with reality, I left the hall with the feeling that what had happened was more nearly entertainment than art, though of course these are not mutually exclusive categories.
Ramey's vocal production was nearly flawless. I was disturbed only by a fairly frequent over-rounding of the ah vowel, both in Italian and in German, such that it emerged as indistinct from the vowel in the English word "awe." In the other languages, this amounts to mispronunciation. Still, Ramey's diction was overall several cuts above the norm for opera singers.
I could hardly praise the pianist enough. Jones was completely in command of the material. It was the first and only time I've seen a duo recital in which the pianist played from memory, but I didn't have the feeling this was being done merely to be flashy. On the contrary, it seemed to solidify and deepen the performance, especially in the very difficult songs by Samuel Barber, which I found to be the high point of the program.
It was the program itself that accounted for a substantial part of my reservations about this concert. It followed a fairly common pattern, opening with a group of songs and arias in Italian: Handel, Mozart, Carrissimi, etc. These were very clear, very dramatic, and mostly very beautiful, if somewhat predictable. The Schubert group that followed was less satisfying, in that I felt it demanded a far wider variety of voices than Ramey brought to it, especially in "Aufenthalt," which opened the group, and in "Der Erlkönig," which closed it. It seemed odd that an opera singer would underplay the dramatic elements of such music.
The four Barber songs that opened the second half of the concert were each strengthened by magnificent poetry (Agee and Joyce, especially) and by truly masterful singing and playing. But three songs by Charles Tomlinson Griffes were on third-rate poems at best and suggest that Griffes could better be allowed to rest in fully justifiable obscurity. The final group was three songs by George Gershwin (texts by Ira), a composer too long disdained by concert artists as tainted by the pop-music tradition. Here Ramey crooned with the best, no doubt about it, well supported by the very stylish Jones.
Prolonged applause brought many bows and finally resulted in an encore aria by Mozart, which brought the crowd to its feet with cheers and whoops and whistles. I wish the whole thing had been on the level of the Barber group, with a more organized, cohesive succession of groups and songs within the groups. Perhaps I expected too much.
Isthmus, January, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson