Simon Estes, a leading bass-baritone on opera and concert stages for a quarter century, last appeared in Baltimore at the Lyric Opera House about 15 years ago in a concert version of "Boris Godounov" with Sergiu Comissiona and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Thanks to Morgan State University's Performing Arts Series directed by Nathan Carter, some 250 fans heard Estes in town yesterday at the Murphy Auditorium in a thrilling two-hour recital of 18 art songs, show tunes and spirituals.
The graceful Wagnerian demonstrated that his largely European career, heavily immersed in the deep thickets of Wagner's "Ring" cycle and other operatic fare, had not spoiled his voice for the lighter but serious songs of Schubert, Brahms, Mozart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kern, or H.T. Burleigh arrangements of spirituals.
A tall imposing man of 53, Estes sang in forceful or tender tones from bottom to top with equal ease and polished form, displayed fine German, Italian and Russian diction and paced his singing in a variety of tempos.
Even his hands were expressive by simply being at his sides or clasped together or holding his coat corners or his right hand balanced on the piano.
Estes had a gifted accompanist in Julius Tilghman, a Baltimore city music teacher and a sensitive pianist able to compliment the singer with textured phrasing and moods to fit the music, however somber or plaintive or spirited. The pair were virtually perfect in Aleko's cavatina from Rachmaninoff's "Aleko."
The program's texts were almost uniformly troubled (as the poet Heine's "I must carry the whole world's afflications") but the two artists brought a sense of resolve and musicality that was uplifting.
Estes summed it up in the spirituals' words, "Ev'ry time I feel the spirit, I will feel it in my heart and I will pray."
The singer's reading of the familiar "Ol' Man River" from Kern's "Show Boat" was remarkably fresh and moving. Estes' encore version of Macbeth's dispairing aria "Pieta, rispetto, amore" showed what a good Verdian Estes remains, despite his Wagner.