Ben Bliss brings colorful voice and natural artistry to recital for Vocal Arts DC

Wed Nov 16, 2016 at 2:06 pm
By Harry Rose
Tenor Ben Bliss performed a recital  Tuesday night to open Vocal Arts DC's season. Photo: Dario Acosta

Tenor Ben Bliss performed a recital Tuesday night to open Vocal Arts DC’s season. Photo: Dario Acosta

Washington D.C. is an international city and Vocal Arts DC’s 2016-17 lineup reflects that. Singers such as Sandrine Piau, Anne Schwanewilms, Piotr Beczala, and Christian Gerhaher will all appear at some point later this season in the venerable series.

But on Tuesday night, the city’s indispensable vocal recital presenter opened its season with a program that was uniquely American in its diversity. American tenor Ben Bliss and pianist Lachlan Glen presented a thoughtful evening of song that spanned two hemispheres, four languages, and 12 composers. The event took place at Vocal Arts DC’s temporary home, the Theater of the Arts at the University of D.C.

Bliss possesses a colorful, easily produced tenor, smooth shifting between registers, and low notes that sounded with resonance and depth. He sings in a natural, conversational style that showcases his vigor and vitality as well as Bliss’s gorgeous, arching phrasing.

That quality was evident in “Ständchen,” the first in his set of three Richard Strauss songs. After obtaining a workable balance with Glen’s half-closed piano, Bliss’s clarity of tone and deliberate word-painting more than compensated for some initial unsteadiness. So strong were Bliss’s phrasing capabilities that in his next two songs, “Nur Mut!” and “Barkarole,” the combination of singing and meaningful gestures rendered the vocal lines like visual illustrations. In “Morgen,” which began with spellbinding playing by Glen, Bliss showed how a charismatic stage presence can made the pauses between the notes nearly as important as the notes themselves.

Four plaintive songs by Lili Boulanger were heard next.  Here too Bliss was as thoughtful and engaged as before. “Un poète disait” and “Nous nous aimerons tant” showed off his superb focus and a judicious vibrato. The finale of this set, “Les lilas qui avaient fleuri” was its crowning jewel. Beginning with descending piano arpeggios evocative of lilac petals cascading to the ground, Bliss’s mezzo-voce shading and gorgeously floated high notes created a meditative effect.

Even though Franesco Paolo Tosti’s lusty “Marechiare” was the least successful item of the evening, it still gave Bliss the opportunity to display a nice trill.

A set of English songs was especially idiomatic and offered a skillful mix of familiar names and contemporary composers. The evening gave a world premiere of John Gruen’s as-yet-unpublished settings of E.E. Cummings poems, which were evening highlights. The lighthearted texts and simple, rhythmic melodies fit Bliss’s conversational singing style like a glove.

Theodore Chanler’s “I rise when you enter,” was heavy on the dramatic and replete with interpretive detail, the concluding high notes spun out easily. Bliss’s versatility was likewise apparent in Ned Rorem’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” that had all the comfortable stillness of gently falling snow.

Songs by Benjamin Britten with the unifying theme of death (“The Children and Sir Nameless,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” and “The Choirmaster’s Burial”) lacked something in rapport between Bliss and Glen. Yet the tenor’s graceful mix of ornamental vibrato and full-bodied singing was evocative of vaulted cathedrals of England and his rounded lower register took on an urgent gravitas.

In his final set, Bliss delivered a mellow, legato approach to various musical Americana. In Harold Arlen’s “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” he gave his voice a hazy coloring that created a visual image of the music. And though sounding a bit fatigued at the end of the evening, Bliss still sold Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” radiating an energetic, homegrown charm.

“Maria” from West Side Story was the sole encore, Bliss closing the evening with a sincere and heartfelt performance.

Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber perform 7:30 p.m. December 6 at Theatre of the Arts at the University of DC.

Harry Rose writes about opera and classical music on his blog Opera Teen and has also written for the Huffington Post. He is currently a freshman at Georgetown University studying Italian.

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