|Christopher Cooley and Justin Austin at Manhattan School of Music
What a relief! Two terrific recitals back to back, not simultaneous! Each brilliant event deserves its own review so let us begin with baritone Justin Austin who has truly earned his Master of Music degree. We first heard Mr. Austin in Cavalli's La Doriclea some three years ago and have been a fan ever since. We have heard him singing art songs with New York Festival of Song, and most recently heard him as Dr. Malatesta in Donizetti's comedic masterpiece Don Pasquale, playing off the Norina of his beautiful wife Amanda. Imagine our pleasure as we saw that a scene from this opera would be reprised as the finale of Mr. Austin's graduation recital!
We just loved the interaction between Dr. Malatesta as he imitates the old Don and instructs Norina in how to portray his convent-educated sister Sofronia in order to prank Don Pasquale. Thomas Muraco was credited for help with this "Pronto io son" and we recall that Maestro Muraco coached and conducted the opera just 6 months ago. We might add that Mrs. Austin's soprano is just as dazzling in her fach as her husband is in his. A true operatic power couple.
There were plenty of goodies before the finale, of course. What we love about Mr. Austin is the expressiveness and depth of involvement that he lends to everything he sings. He has a sunny stage presence that the members of the audience appreciated as much as we did. The texture of the vibrato is as ear-pleasing as one might wish.
We loved his accuracy in German and understood every word of his Wolf and Schubert. He sang a sole selection from each of our two favorite song cycles. From Winterreise he invested "Die Krahe" with a tinge of horror and madness such that we seemed to experience the entire cycle as a hologram. In "Halt!" from Die Schone Mullerin there was excitement to spare and the piano of Christopher Cooley kept those mill wheels turning.
Mr. Cooley also excelled in Ravel's cycle Don Quichotte a Dulcinee, establishing a rocking rhythm in support of Mr. Austin's finely nuanced interpretation. It came as no surprise that a program insert, which thanked all the people who had helped his artistic advancement, credited his teacher Catherine Malfitano for working with him on that cycle. We all know what a fine flair the divine Ms. M. has with the French repertory. The phrasing was Gallic and so was the pronunciation. We didn't miss a word!
Significantly, at least to us, was the fact that his English was also exemplary. We heard two very different soliloquies; the first was Billy's from Rogers and Hammersteins's Carousel, for which he credited his coach Erick Sedgwick, and the second was Coalhouse's from Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally's Ragtime. Mr. Austin captured all the hopefulness and pride of the first, and all the sorrow and despair of the second.
We also loved his performance of Aaron Copland's "The Little Horses" which was sung with tenderness and a lovely intermittent pianissimo. Mr. Cooley's piano was delicate and helped to sustain the hypnotic mood. For this piece, Stephanie Blythe's assistance was credited.
Margaret Bonds' setting of Langston Hughes "Minstrel Man" was deeply affecting, as was Mark Hayes' arrangement of the hymn "Amazing Grace" for which Mr. Austin was joined by baritone Kenneth Overton. The two men achieved a fine balance in their harmonies.
We are not sure why we didn't relate to Ricky Ian Gordon's "When Sue Wears Red", another setting of a Langston Hughes text. The piano seemed to drown out the words and we didn't care for the music. But the rest of the audience seemed to love it so perhaps it was just at odds with our taste.
The concert ended with a love fest! Mr. Austin is gracious to a fault and thanked and embraced his teacher Ms. Malfitano and spoke most movingly about all the people who helped him along the way in his 6 years at Manhattan School of Music. He also thanked his parents profusely and his wife's parents as well. His parents came up to the stage and his father, a tenor, announced that the two would join forces for duo recitals in Switzerland. Now that's something we'd love to hear!
He dedicated his encore to his family--"I Want Jesus to Walk with Me", sung a capella. We walked out feeling all warm and fuzzy.
(c) meche kroop