Mezzo DeShong lights up Vocal Arts DC with rarely heard music

Sat Sep 29, 2018 at 12:12 pm

Elizabeth DeShong performed a recital Friday night at the Kennedy Center for Vocal Arts DC. Photo: Dario Acosta

A decade ago a young singer named Elizabeth DeShong charmed audiences at Wolf Trap as Ruggiero in Handel’s Alcina. The American mezzo-soprano has gone on to perform in major opera houses all over the world, including reprising the same Handel role at Washington National Opera last fall. 

DeShong showed another side of her considerable talents in a brilliantly crafted song recital Friday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented by Vocal Arts DC. When songs by Reynaldo Hahn are the most familiar selections, a performer has clearly plumbed the repertorial depths for buried treasure. 

DeShong deployed a broad range of vocal colors to show the best facets of each unusual set. In Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies, she found every possible maternal quality in these sweet and at times hilarious bedtime songs.

Alongside mystical calm in William Blake’s poem “A Cradle Song” and burr-trilled wonder in “The Highland Balou” by Robert Burns were desperate threats if the willful child will not go to sleep in Thomas Randolph’s “A Charm.” DeShong’s voice is most luscious and chocolate-smooth through its extensive bottom range, heard in Robert Greene’s “Sephestia’s Lullaby.” Even in the unaccompanied passages in the hypnotic “The Nurse’s Song” by John Phillip, DeShong wrapped her voice beguilingly around the ear.

Other revelations followed in Arthur Honegger’s Trois Fragments, based on poems from Les Pâques à New York by Blaise Cendrars. The intensity of religious imagery, mirrored in the composer’s extended harmonic vocabulary, was buttressed by the reserved, intricately etched playing of Mark Markham. The pianist illuminated every slight nuance in the wide-ranging tapestry of musical styles offered by this program, always careful to support DeShong with just the right dynamic and attack.

Honegger’s lesser known music paired delectably with the early Vier Lieder, Op. 2, of Arnold Schoenberg, from that point in his life when Schoenberg still wanted to be Richard Strauss. DeShong, an accomplished Straussian, murmured and howled in ecstasy in response to the overwrought harmonic and melodic excesses inspired by the poetry of Richard Dehmel. The top of her voice can edge into shrillness at full volume, not helped by the overactive acoustic of the refitted Terrace Theater. By the subtlety of their approach, both pianist and singer seemed aware that the room suits soft dynamics best.

The only minor disappointment was the Tre canzoni of Ildebrando Pizzetti, interesting pieces that dragged on too long in this performance. Based on folk songs, this is music that needs a little more spontaneity and rawness, not least in the active piano parts that challenged the otherwise superlative Markham. 

Little worry since what followed it, three songs by Reynaldo Hahn, was the highlight of the evening’s offerings. Strangely it was not the famous “À Chloris,” with its neo-Baroque undulating bass line, that most impressed. In both “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” (Victor Hugo) and “Offrande” (Paul Verlaine), DeShong and Markham achieved that rare unity in French song, where the poetry set to melody maintains a sense of recitation, fleeting in the moment but now captured in art. (What a shame that some members of the audience caused so much noise with coughing and especially their electronic devices, that DeShong requested an announcement begging listeners to turn off their devices.)

The close of the recital offered more humor, with Paper Wings, a rather goofy set of songs by Jake Heggie set to the words of legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade about her daughter. Heggie charms in these songs with perfect evocation of jazz and blues tropes, and DeShong turned on her more theatrical side. That fun-loving persona then camped her way through two Broadway encores, the moving “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from Rodger and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music and Irving Berlin’s delightful “I Love a Piano.”

Vocal Arts DC presents soprano Hyesang Park and pianist Ken Noda in recital at the Kennedy Center 7:30 p.m. October 25.; 202-669-1463

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