Russian songs fare best in Bondarenko’s recital for Vocal Arts 

Wed Dec 06, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Andrei Bondarenko performed a recital for Vocal Arts DC Tuesday night at the Terrace Theater.

Vocal Arts DC dedicates part of its season of song recitals to rising young singers. On Tuesday night the series hosted Andrei Bondarenko in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. After winning the 2011 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, he has gone on to a burgeoning career, especially on the opera stage.

The Ukrainian baritone’s program of French and Russian songs did not always show the best side of his voice. The opening set, Jacques Ibert’s Chansons de Don Quichotte, required more subtlety than Bondarenko seemed able to summon. Many of the songs in this group are stark and simple in style, calling for a lot of finesse and dramatic poise. Pianist Gary Matthewman contributed slender accompaniments, often imitating the sound of the guitar.

Throughout the evening, in some songs more than others, Bondarenko’s intonation seemed insecure at times, as in the second song of the Ibert set, and his French pronunciation was sometimes hard to comprehend without looking at the printed texts. Oddly for a baritone, his tone was richest in the low range, mellow in the middle, but above a certain point, an odd constriction beset the voice, making an already generous vibrato sometimes obscure the center of the pitch.

Strain at the top of the range was most pronounced on the highest notes in the program, as in the climax of “Les Berceaux,” part of an equally unsuccessful set of mélodies by Gabriel Fauré. These French songs demanded a greater magnetism in the voice and stage presence, which was lacking.

Bondarenko was at his best in the Russian songs that concluded the recital, including two encores. Here he was able to caress the words of the songs, imparting special meaning, and the gloomy despair created by many of these songs seemed to suit his vocal temperament better. His is a voice of great potential, and the upper range was much stronger when he could float high notes, as at the end of Georgy Sviridov’s “The Virgin in the City.”

The best combination of composer, music, and singer came in the Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky songs on the second half, music not heard as often locally. Bondarenko loosened up considerably, it seemed, yielding more character in his humorous interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s “Did you hiccough, Natasha?” In particular the dark, melancholy tone created by singer and pianist together in Tchaikovsky’s “Amid the din of the ball” and “My Genius, My Angel, My Friend” was a highlight.

The long Tchaikovsky set featured the best music of the evening, in which the performers both seemed to luxuriate more in the despondent words and somber, wistful melodies. Here Bondarenko sang suavely in a less emphatic manner, with a notable improvement in tone quality and intonation.

One positive aspect of the newly refurbished Terrace Theater is that vocal artists do not have to strain as much in a space that now rewards subtlety more than force; Bondarenko sometimes erred on the side of the latter.

If brighter and more alive, the revamped acoustic, sadly, still sounds dryer and harsher than it was before the renovation. Audience sounds are now magnified, bringing noises from hearing aids, watch alarms, creaking chairs, candy wrappers, and the like more distractingly into the mix.


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