Mulligan too operatic in Spears premiere, yet brings nuanced artistry to Argento for Vocal Arts DC

Mon Sep 17, 2018 at 1:15 pm
By Joan Reinthaler

Brian Mulligan performed the world premiere of Gregory Spears’ song-cycle “Walden” Sunday for Vocal Arts DC. Photo: Dario Acosta

It was a long wait but the world premiere of Walden, Gregory Spears’ song cycle, finally made its way to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Sunday, performed by Brian Mulligan.

The performance had originally been scheduled for last May but that concert was derailed by Mulligan falling ill the day of the concert. Instead, the cycle highlighted the opening of Vocal Arts DC’s 2018-2019 season.

Spears is an amazingly prolific composer. Over the last six years he’s had five operas premiered—including the widely acclaimed and performed Fellow Travelers– as well as one for dance ensemble, one for children, and a couple of chamber operas, along with a fistful of smaller works. His accompaniments tend to have an underlying throb and his vocal lines sparkle with ornamentation.

But Walden, set to texts by Thoreau, is different. The throb is still there but, as Spears describes it, he has structured the music with Thoreau’s philosophy in mind – that “we should look for the sublime in the simplest, most common materials.” Its five songs trace Thoreau’s journey to the solitude of the woods around Walden Pond and then back to the bustle of the city. The settings are built on simple thematic material with no showy vocal acrobatics–just a motif of two notes a fourth apart for the first song and then somewhat more complex vocal lines as the cycle develops. The piano accompaniment maintains its calm rhythmic undulations at a constant tempo throughout the cycle’s 25 minutes and ties the five sections together.

Brian Mulligan is a big man with a voice to match and a huge repertoire of opera roles under his belt. The baritone took on the cycle with declamatory fervor but not a lot of subtlety. It may be that he hasn’t yet internalized this music. He sang holding the score and the printed page seemed to come between him and his communication with the audience (which wasn’t the case in the rest of the program). Passages of both wonder and contemplation emerged at full power and only in the chant-like  “old story” of the fourth song, sung with a comforting sense of calm, did his phrasing take on a more nuanced and supple shape.

Pianist Timothy Long, playing with unflagging evenness and crisp articulation, wove textures that projected clarity, inevitability and the occasional flash of light.

Mulligan, a long-time advocate of the music of Dominic Argento, brought his cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf  to the second half of the program. Here he was a different singer altogether. Without a score between him and the audience, Mulligan projected an intimacy that communicated Woolf’s anxieties and desolate longings with an actor’s intensity. He used pianissimos and silences, falsettos and hard consonants with dramatic and artistic effect and communicated Woolf’s instability with devastating clarity.

The eight excerpts from Woolf’s diaries are organized chronologically and sample from a buffet of her neuroses; it is left to the piano to provide the scenery and to reflect the inner turmoil, which Long did expertly. He was a solemn, resonant organ and a gentle choir for “Hardy’s Funeral,” a street dance-band for “Rome” and distant echoes of a hymn for “Parents,” all rendered with splendid support for Mulligan.

Mulligan’s progress in this recital from stiff interpreter to consummate actor-singer-communicator culminated in his encore–a 1906 version of Blind Alfred Reed’s music hall-like song “Beware, Oh Take Care,” which he cavorted through with delicious naughtiness.

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