Youthful tenor Hoskins shows nascent mature artistry in Vocal Arts debut

Thu Dec 14, 2023 at 12:29 pm

Tenor Jonah Hoskins performed a recital for Vocal Arts DC Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Photo: Courtney Ruckman

Vocal Arts DC marked the 10th anniversary of its annual emerging artists debut recital, supported by a fund named for its beloved founder, Gerald Perman. Tenor Jonah Hoskins sang an invigorating program, centered on songs from the last century, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Pianist William Woodard enveloped his singer in a confident, supportive tapestry of sound from the keyboard.

Hoskins’ tenor rings with a boyish freshness, heard memorably when he sang the small but important role of the Sailor in Santa Fe Opera’s Tristan und Isolde in 2022. The same qualities, a tightly spiraling vibrato and greater ease toward the top range, came across in Friendly Persuasions, one of the worthier song cycles by American composer Jake Heggie. The texts, by Heggie’s frequent collaborator Gene Scheer, are all set in the voice of Francis Poulenc, based on the latter’s recollections of four important people in his life.

In the first song, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska scolds Poulenc for not yet finishing the concerto he eventually dedicated to her, the Concert champêtre. Woodard gave an agitated edge to the little buzzing ritornello that runs through the song, a bit reminiscent of the fast sections of the concerto. Woodard also easily covered for Hoskins’ slightly early entrance in the second song, about the baritone Pierre Bernac refusing to sing a new Poulenc song.

The third song is devoted to Raymonde Linossier, the childhood friend whom Poulenc asked to marry him, in spite of his own homosexual leanings. (This is a salient parallel to Heggie’s own life, since he married his much older teacher, the widow of composer Roy Harris, before coming out himself.) The last song, about poet Paul Éluard, rounded out the “great meetings” of the composer’s life, as Poulenc put it. The French composer’s lush harmonic style seemed to invade Heggie’s more saccharine, Broadway vocabulary, to pleasing effect.

The highlight of the program was three songs by the late American composer Lee Hoiby, beginning with the enigmatic “What if…,” about a dream of a rose. Hoskins cryptically described this program as the “spiritual autobiography of my life,” starting with this set of songs about flowers. The tenor’s English diction was the strongest and clearest of the three languages in which he sang, and he savored the American composer’s melodic handling of text. Two songs by Robert Schumann pleased less, with the singer’s active vibrato unsettling the legato line.

Hoskins paled in vocal color toward the bottom of the range, and a rather low note in Hoiby’s “Wild Nights” almost vanished entirely. The heroic timbre of his upper notes, in this song and in Heggie’s “Ophelia’s Song,” proved the most delightful part of his voice. A dramatic streak came out in two chilling songs about evil presences, Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” and “Der Erlkönig,” the latter with thrilling repeated triplets from Woodard at the keyboard.

Jonah Hoskins performed with pianist William Woodard Wednesday night. Photo: Courtney Ruckman

The songs that suited Hoskins best were comedic, especially Erik Satie’s Trois Mélodies, surrealistic miniatures that he delivered with deadpan seriousness. Few songs have ever put so much into selling an idiotic pun (un oisetier/un noisetier) than the middle song, “Daphénéo.” Hoiby’s patter-wild “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s poem of knightly nonsense, came off with similar panache, complete with violent glissandi from Woodard as the “the vorpal blade went snicker-snack!”

The final set of four songs contemplated lives alone versus those with someone to love. Samuel Barber’s “Desire for Hermitage” entertained the ultimate loneliness, in a monastic cell, with Woodard providing an ostinato repeated note that evoked the ringing of a distant bell. Heggie’s “Joy Alone” pondered a different kind of loneliness, among nature, with Hoskins letting go vocally at the climax of the words “joy alone.”

Representing the other side of the coin was Benjamin Britten, whose setting of “My beloved is mine” by Francis Quarles gave a sensuous, earthly turn to the poet’s paraphrase of Song of Songs. Hoskins, who has admitted in print to being a fan of Stephen Sondheim, gave the program’s last word to the American musical composer, in an ardent rendition of “Being Alive” from Company, with only Woodard’s piano for the unheard interjections of the other characters.

Hoskins finally sang something that suited his voice best for the first encore, an adventurous and enthusiastic rendition of “Ah! Mes amis” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, with a couple extra high notes thrown in with the nine high Cs. A boisterous, multi-metric version of “Jingle Bells,” in spite of a memory lapse, recovered with comic verve, sent the crowd home in holiday spirits.

Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis and pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers perform songs by Beach, Wagner, Dunphy, Corley, and Ashbourne 7:30 p.m. January 24.

One Response to “Youthful tenor Hoskins shows nascent mature artistry in Vocal Arts debut”

  1. Posted Dec 15, 2023 at 9:28 am by Alan Goldhammer

    I did not find this recital compelling other than the selection of songs. I thought Hoskins was overly loud and not nuanced enough. His rendition of the two Schubert pieces was problematic in this regard.

    Yes, the Daughter of the Regiment encore was spectacular and a good demonstration of what Mr. Hoskins can do with the right material. Sadly, that was lacking in the songs.

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