May 9, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Star David Daniels Fills Richardson at University Concert

The counter-tenor superstar has been undergoing a relatively recent resurgence, yet much of the 17th and 18th century operas — which audiences are familiar with — were written with this voice in mind. Composers from Handel to Mozart and even Wagner wrote for the castrato voice, and in the Baroque era, male sopranos and altos were considered vocal icons. In recent decades, attention has turned back to the counter-tenor in the interest of authentic performance. Despite these roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, David Daniels’ performance last week at Richardson Auditorium journeyed way beyond the traditional Baroque counter-tenor repertory into the vocally rich music of the 19th century. Joined last Thursday night by renowned accompanist Martin Katz and dancers from the esteemed Mark Morris Dance Group, Mr. Daniels demonstrated his versatility and range to a sold-out house at Richardson.

Mr. Daniels has certainly performed his share of late 17th and early 18th century music; his recent performance in a Metropolitan Opera Baroque pastiche validated why he is considered a leading interpreter of this historical period. To open Thursday night’s performance, he stepped back a bit to the earliest days of opera. Jacopo Peri’s 1600 Euridice is one of the earliest surviving operas, employing a number of musical styles dramatically new to the times. The aria “Gioite al canto mio” exemplified the melodic style of singing prevalent in 16th-century Italy. Most likely accompanied by stringed instruments, this aria transferred well to piano, as collaborator Martin Katz maintained a light touch on the short quick scales leading to the sung part. Mr. Daniels brought a vocal richness to the text probably not heard in Peri’s era, but as he showed in this and the next few selections from the early Baroque, he is a master of this period. Mr. Daniels is an advocate of the “give and take” between accompanist and voice, and his performing relationship with Mr. Katz is solid enough to find the ebb and flow in each text. Mr. Daniels put particular weight behind the vocal line in Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella” (considered a signature song for counter-tenors) and showed breath control which in the Baroque era would become a staple of male singing.

In the four selections by early 20th-century French composer Reynaldo Hahn, Mr. Daniels soared in the upper registers as Mr. Katz provided light and airy accompaniment. This composer is not well-known, yet his music is equally as effectively impressionistic as the more renowned Debussy and Ravel; one could almost see Monet working on his paintings in the music.

This concert took the audience on a geographic, literary, and musical journey, and Mr. Daniels moved effortlessly into the Austrian music of Johannes Brahms. His vocal sparkle in the five selections of Brahms songs well matched the choreography of Mark Morris which provided a unique element to the performance. The Mark Morris Dance Group is known for a young, fresh, and innovative approach to dance and the six members of the troupe who performed Thursday night added simplicity and elegance, taking the concert beyond the words and music. In his songs, Brahms treated piano and voice equally, and the third song “Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen” revealed the most dramatic impact in the closing piano accompaniment.

The Mark Morris dancers returned for a very buoyant performance of three songs mostly revolving around spring and love by Hector Berlioz. “Le Spectre de la Rose” in particular covered a wide vocal range, and Mr. Daniels effectively drew out an introspective text considering destiny and fate. The close of this song drew a sparse yet dramatic accompaniment from Mr. Katz. The dancers shone in “L’Ile Inconnue,” with choreography simulating the swells of the sea. Mr. Daniels closed the concert with four folksong arrangements of Ohio composer Steven Mark Kohn. All composers need a performing advocate, and Mr. Kohn has a solid one in Mr. Daniels, who apparently has a long association with Kohn’s three sets of American Folksongs. These arrangements were nicely flowing and Mr. Kohn clearly writes well for the voice. “One the Other Shore” draws from an old American tune, which Mr. Daniels sang expressively, and Mr. Kohn’s Copland-esque musical style was a spirited way to end the concert.

Princeton University scored a coup with Mr. Daniels, also engaging him for a master class with five voice students from the department of music. If Princeton University concerts can continue to build extensive collaborations with major artists, the positive effects will be felt well through the musical community.