|Countertenor John Holiday|
This will be the fifth time we reviewed countertenor John Holiday and his artistry just keeps on growing. The very first time we heard him was over five years ago at Lachlan Glen's year-long survey of Franz Schubert's 600+ songs. We noted the sweetness of his voice. Later that year we had a lot more to say about his performance in the title role of Handel's Radamisto, noting his artistry in the legato lines and his fireworks in the fioritura.
In 2015 we swooned over his rather good natured Cesare in Vivaldi's Catone in Utica, presented by Opera Lafayette. And in 2016, we loved his performance in Huang Ro's Paradise Interrupted, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
Last night we heard new aspects of his artistry in an all-too-short (but nonetheless satisfying) recital in the Crypt of the Church of the Intercession, a bit spooky in atmosphere but with incredible acoustics. The recital was part of the sold-out Unison Media series, curated by Andrew Ousley who has managed to come up with several unusual recitals. Keep reading, dear reader, and we will tell you what he has up his musical sleeve for the summer and fall.
But first look at what Mr. Holiday had up his sleeve! He baited his hook with some delicious Italian and French favorites so that by the time he got to music that was somewhat outside our sphere of devotion, we were hooked and it was too late to protest that it wasn't "our kind of music". Obviously, everything Mr. Holiday performed was dear to his heart; the communication from his heart to those of the audience members was so effective that people spontaneously burst into applause after every single song.
He began with "Frondi tenere e belle...Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Serse. We've heard so many singers try to do justice to this gorgeous paean to nature but Mr. Holiday simply nailed it. His high pitched instrument is never effete but full and rich. We speculate that the famous castrati back in the day were so widely praised because they sounded like this. Thankfully, Mr. Holiday's sacrifices for his art did not extend that far!
There followed a series of songs in French, from the wistful "Romance" of Claude Debussy, to the ennui of Poulenc's "Hôtel", and three familiar songs of Reynaldo Hahn--"Si mes vers avaient des ailes", "Offrande", and "À Chloris". We loved the way Mr. Holiday can spin out a pianissimo like a silken thread, even at the top of his register. The overtones bounced around the room like pingpong balls.
When an artist is this good we are willing to follow him anywhere and we were surprised at how much we enjoyed Margaret Bonds' mid 20th c. setting of Langston Hughes' text. The phrases are short and the composer matched melody to text better than any other composer we have heard who set Hughes' text. "Minstrel Man", "Dream Variations", and the forceful "I, too am American" affected us deeply.
Theodore Morrison was commissioned by countertenor David Daniels to write a song cycle and we felt privileged to hear his setting of text by James Joyce. The music was blissfully accessible without a whiff of "the academy" to make our eyes roll. Our favorite was the final song "I hear an army charging upon the land" in which Mr. Holiday gave us some very powerful singing and some delicious melismatic singing. We believe that this is the same Theodore Morrison who composed the opera Oscar which we heard in Santa Fe a few years ago.
We also heard Hall Johnson's arrangement of the spiritual "I'm Gonter Tell God All O' My Troubles" in which Mr. Holiday bent the tone as if it were putty in his hands.
Pianist Kevin J. Miller did a fine job as Mr. Holiday's partner for the aforementioned part of the program; for the remaining part, Mr. Neeki Bey took over and seemed to be an expert at jazz improvisation.
At this point, the piano scores disappeared from the piano and a snazzy fedora appeared on Mr. Holiday's head. Although jazz is not our thing, we found much to enjoy except for the first piece--a jazz arrangement of "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. That opera is sacred to us and we didn't want it messed with!
The following standards were all enjoyable with the bluesy "Round Midnight" being our hands down favorite. There was a time when we did like jazz, before we fell in love with opera, and we are quite sure that we listened to recordings of this song by Sarah Vaughn and perhaps also by Ella Fitzgerald. What a surprise to learn that Thelonious Monk wrote it when he was 18.
We admired Mr. Holiday's word painting in Karl Suessdorf's "Moonlight in Vermont" and tapped our toe to Fats Waller's jaunty "Ain't Misbehavin". Mr. Bey had a piano solo in this and in the following lively Nat King Cole song "Straighten Up and Fly Right" which way played in a medley with "My Funny Valentine", sung at a slow tempo with a swoop up to the highest register.
There was more to come by way of encores. Mr. Bey abdicated the piano and Mr. Holiday sat down and let loose with "Amazing Grace" and "This Little Light of Mine". We are sure everyone in the audience left feeling lighter than when they arrived. Standing ovations do give us that impression!
We promised to tell you what Mr. Ousley and Unison Media have in store. Perhaps motivated by the success of The Crypt Sessions, they are planning a series in the catacombs of Greenwood Cemetery! The first entry will be in June and the series is already half sold out! So be a chooser, not a loser and stake your claim now. See www.deathofclassical.com (really!) for details.
(c) meche kroop