Morris' rare bass-baritone

Baltimore native gives two concerts for fund-raisers

May 18, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A bass-baritone is one of the rarer voice types, nestled between two low-pitched worlds. An uncomfortable fit is apt to match James Joyce's delicious phrase, "a base barreltone voice." An ideal example -- the rare singer with the dark richness of a bass and the brighter, freer expanse of a baritone -- is called James Morris.

The Baltimore-born and -bred artist returned to his hometown over the weekend for two benefit concerts. A calendar conflict kept me from Friday night's fund-raiser for the Maryland Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at Goucher College (he shared the stage with other Metropolitan Opera regulars), but I was happy to catch his solo recital Sunday afternoon at Grace United Methodist Church for Camp Deerwood in New Hampshire.

Morris spends a good deal of time ruminating around Valhalla as head god Wotan in Wagner's Ring Cycle or portraying any number of other compelling characters on opera stages around the world. Hearing him give a recital in an intimate space is a rare treat. The turnout on Sunday was modest, the rewards abundant.

For one thing, the singer was in a very generous mood, offering a program well-packed with great arias and art songs. And, except for some uncooperative soft high notes along the way, he was in sturdy, stirring form.

Although the acoustics fought against him (more bodies in the pews would have soaked up excess reverberation), Morris focused tellingly on the music with his burnished, sumptuous tone.

He made Ella giammai m'amo from Verdi's Don Carlo so emotionally naked that the whole opera seemed to materialize. Just the way he produced the opening note of Mozart's concert aria, Mentre ti lascio, the sound coming from deep within a torn heart and slowly intensifying, spoke eloquently.

Morris achieved some highly poetic results in a group of Richard Strauss songs. It was in a couple of these items that the singer ran into trouble as he attempted to file the voice down to a delicate thread, but any roughness was easily forgotten in light of how sensitively he sculpted the phrases.

Later, in the endearing Chansons de Don Quichotte by Jacques Ibert, Morris had no trouble producing subtle, velvety pianissimos; the effect was quite beautiful.

Another highlight was a group of poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson set to music by John Duke, the Cumberland-born, Peabody-trained composer and pianist who died in 1984. Never mind that Morris had a memory lapse in the last of them (he had as much fun with that as the audience did).

What counted was that he brought each of the three characters in the verses to life -- Richard Cory, the surprisingly suicidal "gentleman from sole to crown"; Miniver Cheevy, who "cursed the commonplace" and "kept on drinking"; and the lovesick Luke Havergal, drawn to "the western gate."

Throughout the concert, Joshua Greene provided Morris with polished, if mostly colorless, support at the piano.

Boris Slutsky recital

Before heading to the Morris recital, I caught the start of Boris Slutsky's program Sunday afternoon for the Community Concerts series at Second Presbyterian Church.

The classy, Moscow-born pianist and Peabody faculty member gave a commanding account of Bach's Italian Concerto, with crystalline articulation and a wealth of dynamic shadings in the outer movements, warmly lyrical phrasing in the Andante.

In Beethoven's Les Adieux sonata, a mini-drama about "farewell, absence and return," Slutsky kept things rather dry-eyed. What he missed in poetic nuance early on he made up for with his fleet, colorful finale.

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