22 February 2012

Eric Owens at Zankel Hall

This is a good time to be Eric Owens. With acclaimed performances as General Leslie Groves in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and as Alberich in Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle at the Met, and with a splashy profile feature in the New York Times last Sunday and the January cover of Opera News, the bass-baritone has captured the imagination of the city’s musical community. A solo recital at Zankel Hall last night, with conductor Robert Spano on piano, gave us a chance to focus on Owens, without the Lepage Machine to distract us, and it served notice to anyone who didn’t know already that Owens has really and truly arrived.

And yet most of the enterprise felt almost like an audition for something else — namely, for a recital in the big hall upstairs. Zankel is a small space, but Owens persistently sang bigger and louder than he needed to do; he and Spano didn’t even dress up for the occasion. His program was largely predictable, until we got to the end: yes, a Wagner number, but an obscure one, and rightly so, as it turned out. “Les deux grenadiers” is the kitschiest piece I’ve ever heard from a major composer, a blatant ploy to make money by appealing to the patriotism of the French: when Wagner gets around to quoting the Marseillaise, as you know he eventually must, you want to groan.

What carried the evening was the thrill of Owens’ voice, a massive instrument. He started off with a somber set of Lieder (Wolf, Schubert, Schumann) that pretty much confirmed Anna Russell’s analysis of the form: “soggy poetry set to magnificent music” — except that there were few masterpieces among these particular selections. After the interval, he moved into French art songs (Debussy, Duparc, Ravel) that likewise confirmed Russell’s analysis of that form: “great poetry set to rather wispy music.”

Owens redeemed most of these numbers with intensely focused concentration and authentic feeling — and also with a perfectly calibrated drunk routine in Ravel’s “Chanson à boire.” (His French diction is especially good.) But I wasn’t entirely sure why he was singing these numbers, with so much else to choose from, and really it was the two encores that gave the clearest sense of Owens’ artistry.

You remember the Ring?

You might not think that a voice like his would be terribly flexible, but he sang the title role in Peter Sellars’ staging of Handel’s Hercules at Lyric Opera of Chicago last season, and his account last night of Purcell’s “Music for a While” was pure magic, tender and loving. He followed this up with what he called “my answer to the Schumann set,” an impassioned “Shall We Gather at the River?” that pretty much baptized us all in its warmth and its message of hope. Here, too, he sang softly — right until the end, when he raised his voice in what seemed the absolutely justifiable expectation of triumph.

With the piano lid gaping wide open, Spano may inadvertently have encouraged Owens to over-sing at times, but overall he played beautifully, with a splendid balance of strength and sensitivity. It’s puzzling that accompaniment has figured so slightly in Spano’s distinguished career, and I’m hoping he’ll return frequently to New York in this capacity.

Owens had a full house, and he showed a nice rapport with the crowd, teasing us when the second half began (“You didn’t leave!”) and giving a shout-out to his first piano teacher. In so many ways, he’s a sensational artist. For his next recital — in Stern Hall, with a more intriguing program — he’ll be ready, and I’ll make it a point to be there, too.

1 comment:

Chanterelle said...

It was a treat to hear Owens in a more intimate setting, but the program seemed oddly disconnected, almost as if it had been chosen for him, not by him. The Debussy songs seemed particularly inapt. And what a dark, dark first half from such a genial guy!

"Shall We Gather" best displayed the core sound of his voice -- most of the rest sounded resonant but fuzzy. A friend in Row M had a hard time hearing.

After watching the development of his Alberich, I can't wait for him to grow into Wotan.

Loved the acknowledgment of his piano teacher.