20 March 2010

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Concert by Elizabeth Futral, soprano; Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; and Warren Jones, piano (Dana Auditorium, Greensboro, NC; 19 March 2010)

Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College

Founded by renowned organist Dr. Henry Ingram and his wife Lucy, Greensboro’s Music for a Great Space series is a vital component of the Piedmont/Triad’s performing arts schedule, an engaging series that has brought many renowned organists and musical artists to Greensboro (this season’s scheduled artists include organists John Alexander, Rachel Laurin, and Stephen Tharp; clarinetist Jon Manasse with pianist Jon Nakamatsu; the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet with the ‘Tango Duo’ of soprano Lorena Guillén and pianist Alejandro Rutty; and the celebrated Ciompi Quartet).  The centerpiece of the series’ eighteenth season was a concert dedicated to the memory of Dr. Ingram, who passed away on 13 September 2008.  This concert, for which the artists donated their time and talents, brought together three internationally-acclaimed performers with ties to North Carolina: soprano Elizabeth Futral, who was born in North Carolina and presently resides in Roanoke, VA; mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, who is a native of Burlington; and pianist Warren Jones, who spent much of his childhood in North Carolina.  Celebrated tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, a native of High Point, was also to have participated but was indisposed.  Mr. Griffey’s absence was the only possible reason for regret, however, in what was a tremendously enjoyable evening.

With its title of ‘Great Music, Great Friends,’ the emphasis of this concert was decidedly musical camaraderie, both that among the artists performing and that fostered by the work of Dr. and Mrs. Ingram.  A largely informal affair, the concert’s programme featured many departures from the printed playbill that were only partially accounted for by Mr. Griffey’s absence.  With both singers and Mr. Jones bringing charm and affable stage personalities to their tasks, the concert indeed created an atmosphere of great music-making among friends.

Mr. Jones, a widely-lauded accompanist who has played for a number of the finest singers in recent memory (including Denyce Graves, Marilyn Horne, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Tatiana Troyanos), confirmed his reputation with sensitive but spirited playing that complemented the singing of his partners.  Mr. Jones displayed his gifts for evoking orchestral effects and instruments in numbers throughout the programme, especially in his beautiful playing of the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, prominently accompanied in the opera house by the harp, and the frenzied accompaniment to Ferran Obradors’ canción ‘El Vito,’ suggestive of flamenco guitar.  Mr. Jones likewise gave evidence of the masterful technical command and artistry of his playing in two solo numbers.  The first of these, Brahms’ G-minor Rhapsody (Op. 79, no. 2), drew from Mr. Jones a brilliant performance that explored the complex harmonic progressions and dynamic contrasts of the piece.  Even in this work, the rhapsodic nature of which would seem to defy form, it is possible to observe the supreme Pianist Warren Jonesparadox of Brahms’ music, that the composer found such musical liberation in relatively strict adherence to traditional forms.  Mr. Jones’ playing made this apparent, getting at the soul of the music.  With Brahms, the goal was ever to run to the boundaries of Romantic forms, to do all that could be done with the resources within those forms, and to gaze out at the wastelands beyond without wandering into the abyss.  It was possible to hear in Mr. Jones’ playing of the G-minor Rhapsody the ravaging winds of unfettered musical exploration, but the violence was tempered by serenity.  Mr. Jones’ second solo selection was the ‘Sposalizio’ from Franz Liszt’s Deuxième Année de Pèlerinage: Italie, a brilliant piece which is more lyrical than many of Liszt’s early works for solo piano.  Based on a campanella-like, pentatonic melodic phrase and heavily reliant (as is much of Liszt’s piano music) on playing in octaves, the piece was inspired by Liszt’s first viewing of Raffaello’s 1504 painting ‘The Marriage of the Virgin.’  Mr. Jones’ playing fully exploited both the grand wedding march and the delicate, pastoral depiction of the pealing of bells that frames the work, thoughtfully invoking the inspiration with which the young Liszt translated into tonal imagery the impact of Raffaello’s painting.  As both a collaborative and a solo pianist, Mr. Jones gave the Greensboro audience a rare opportunity to hear playing at the highest level of accomplishment.

In addition to having created the role of Princess Yueyang opposite Plácido Domingo in Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor, coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral has also sung Donizetti’s Lucia, Princesse Eudoxie in Halévy’s La Juive, and Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera.  Also acclaimed for her creation of the role of Stella in Sir André Previn’s operatic setting of A Streetcar Named Desire, a portrayal available on both CD and DVD, Ms. Futral is well-known to opera lovers for her performances on several recordings of rarely-heard bel canto scores on the Opera Rara label.  She began her performance in Greensboro with a sterling presentation of her bel canto credentials in a performance of Norina’s aria ‘So anch’io la virtù magica’ from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.  Ms. Futral tossed off the climactic top notes and roulades, composed for Giulia Grisi, with nonchalant ease, the brightness of the voice conveying the vivacious coyness of the role.  Ms. Futral honored the long-established tradition for concert performances by renowned sopranos by singing a charming account of Lauretta’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, an aria that an honest music lover must admit that for all its over-familiarity is a beautiful melodic inspiration.  She brought theSoprano Elizabeth Futral first half of the concert to a close with performances of two songs by contemporary American composer Ricky Ian Gordon, ‘Will There Really Be a Morning?’ (a setting of a poem by Emily Dickinson) and ‘Joy’ (a setting of Langston Hughes’ ‘I went to look for Joy’).  Both of these songs received from Ms. Futral magnificent performances, the former in particular drawing from her astonishingly poised, emotionally-charged singing, the highest notes approached with rapt beauty and quietude.  Ms. Futral will sing in the New York premiere of the composer’s opera The Grapes of Wrath on Monday, 22 March, and her affinity for his music (he also composed his OBIE-winning opera Orpheus and Euridice for her) was palpable.  Ms. Futral’s final solo selection was the frequently-heard Vilja-Lied (sung in an excellent English translation) from Franz Léhar’s Die Lustige Witwe.  Singing the tale of a young man lamenting the loss of his beloved sprite, Ms. Futral worked magic, building to perfectly-placed, piano top notes that seemed the very epitome of the young lover’s sighs.  It was a performance that brought to mind the vocally very different but incomparably touching Ljuba Welitsch.  Ms. Futral’s performance was from start to finish not the work of an international-circuit singer ‘slumming it’ in the provinces but of a great artist inspired to give of her best.

Thinking of the name of the concert series founded by Dr. and Mrs. Ingram, what was immediately apparent when hearing mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby sing was that hers is a voice that thrives in grand spaces.  Dark, rich, and solid throughout her range like the great contraltos of previous generations, Ms. Maultsby’s voice is of course ideal for the mezzo-soprano warhorses, Bizet’s Carmen and Samson’s Dalila, and also for the heavier music of Wagner and Mahler.  The evenness of Ms. Maultsby’s voice can perhaps be attributed in part to her studies with the wonderful Margaret Harshaw, whose leading rMezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby [Photo by Lisa Kohler]oles at the MET ranged from the contralto role of La Cieca in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda to Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Isolde.  Having sung principal mezzo-soprano roles in opera houses throughout the world, Ms. Maultsby is one of those superbly-trained and splendidly-gifted but unpretentious artists who defeats the famous-name singers at their own game.  Ms. Maultsby paid tribute to her standard repertory with a subtle, sensual account of ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila and a feisty performance of Carmen’s Habañera.  Her final solo number of the first half of the concert was a stirring performance of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, the modulation in the closing refrain of which gave Ms. Maultsby the opportunity to cap the song with a ringing top note.  Perhaps most impressive among her solo numbers was the aforementioned ‘El Vito,’ a brief but intense canción that evokes the dusty, hot environs of Andalucía.  Even in the context of a concert, Ms. Maultsby revealed her welcome versatility, but it ultimately was the mere impact of the voice that made the most lasting impression.

Not surprisingly, especially considering the unfortunate absence of Mr. Griffey, the concert was built around a series of duets for both singers.  The first, the gorgeous and far too seldom-heard ‘Vous soupirez, madame?’ from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, had in this performance all the qualities that Berlioz surely sought: the Classical line, inherited from his beloved Gluck, the delicacy of bel canto, and the harmonic invention that reveals the music’s stylistic kinship with Les Troyens.  Almost inevitable in the context of a concert with these particular artists was the inclusion of the ‘Flower Duet’ (‘Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs’) from Delibes’ Lakmé.  In a true departure from traditions of recent concertizing, the performance of the duet by Ms. Futral and Ms. Maultsby fully justified its inclusion, however.  Equally beguiling was Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the hymn ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’  A piece that can seem slight if done without some degree of reverence but also lugubrious if allowed to wallow in sentimentality, the hymn received from Ms. Futral, Ms. Maultsby, and Mr. Jones a performance that achieved the needed balance between honest, open-hearted feeling and musicality.  The ladies’ final duet was Offenbach’s gossamer Barcarolle, given extra poignancy by being dedicated by the artists to Dr. Ingram’s memory.  The blend between Ms. Futral’s and Ms. Maultsby’s voices was exceptional, the product of a short-lived but obviously fruitful partnership.

Despite the proximity of universities with first-rate schools of music, Greensboro is not often the host of international-class musical artists.  In 1991, Dr. and Mrs. Ingram launched an endeavor that sought to contribute in a meaningful way to the improvement of Greensboro’s arts scene.  Eighteen years of achievement were honored with this benefit concert, organized to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Ingram and his work.  Under circumstances such as those, one is prepared to make allowances for inconsistencies of approach and vagaries in performance standards.  Rarely not only in a performance off the international circuit but, sadly, likewise among celebrated artists, no apologies were required for this concert.  Gifted with voices of the finest quality, both Elizabeth Futral and Nancy Maultsby sang with the same tonal allure and attention to nuance that they might have brought to first nights at a major opera house, and Warren Jones played with the easy brilliance and technical wizardry indicative of a consummate artist.  It was a memorable evening on which a trio of musical friends appropriately remembered one of Greensboro’s most devoted friends of the performing arts.