Chacon is singularly satisfying at Columbia fest

Concert: A vocal recital at Howard Community College shows the art form to be simple and beautiful.

June 22, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The vocal recital is arguably the most intimate, sophisticated and enlightening form of musical expression. No wonder, then, that it's also the least popular. In an age of excess, there just doesn't seem to be much demand for an art form that combines poetry and music, let alone one that involves no more than a single voice and a piano.

Fortunately, many singers still want to give formal recitals containing a variety of languages and styles - German lieder, French chansons, Italian arias, etc. And, here and there, organizations are still willing to present them. The Columbia Festival of the Arts did so Tuesday evening at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. The small turnout did not seem to bother baritone Arturo Chacon, whose obvious enthusiasm for the undertaking never flagged.

This was the second of three "Rising Stars from the Peabody Institute" events at the festival. Chacon, a native of Costa Rica working on a graduate performance diploma at Peabody, demonstrated solid training and a winning way with a phrase. That he could use further development also came through, especially in loud, dramatic passages that found the upper register of the voice lacking weight and security. Low notes, too, tended to be unsupported.

What Chacon has going for him in a big way is a willingness to be subtle, to file the tone down to a soft, sweet level whenever possible. His pianissimo shadings in some of the verses of Schubert's "Standchen" and "An Silvia," for example, gave those familiar songs an affecting freshness.

Throughout a group of Schubert lieder, this affinity for gentle touches paid off, as in the admirably intimate way the baritone closed "Die Forelle."

The danger of such subtlety is that it can turn classical singing into crooning, and Chacon got close to that pop style at times. But the effect was invariably ingratiating, nowhere more so than in the midst of the fiery "Jota" from Manuel de Falla's "Sietes canciones populares espaM-qolas," when he scaled back sensuously to deliver the line "AdiM-ss, niM-qa, hasta maM-qana." His smoothly molded phrasing in the haunting "Asturiana" from that same collection likewise hit home.

A Rossini showpiece and one of Liszt's settings of a Petrarch sonnet had vivid moments but needed greater power at climactic points. Chacon and his sensitive accompanist, Jerome Tan, did some colorful, evocative work in Ravel's "Don Quichotte a Dulcinee" and made a particularly suave duo in the encore, Kurt Weill's "Speak Low."

The house lights should have been left on so the audience could easily follow along with the texts. And I wish that Peabody professor Eileen Soskin, who did the pre-concert lecture, had mentioned the voice recital etiquette of not applauding between groups of songs. Any hopes Chacon may have had to establish and maintain a connective mood in the Schubert, Ravel and de Falla items were dashed by all that clapping.

The next "rising star" from Peabody at the Columbia Festival of the Arts will be pianist Michael Shepherd, playing works by Beethoven, Chopin and others at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Smith Theatre, Howard Community College. For tickets, call 410-481-6500.

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