Mezzo-soprano Blythe dazzles

Critic's Corner//Music

Critic's Corner//Music

December 12, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

Not since Ewa Podles, the contralto powerhouse from Poland, blew the roof off the joint two years ago has the audience for Shriver Hall Concert Series been as jolted by a human voice as it was Sunday night. New York-born mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, whose credits include the 1999 Richard Tucker Award, filled the space with a sound that was exceptionally, excitingly grand in size and vibrancy.

You just don't hear voices with that kind of visceral impact every day. Even though the timbre in this case might not be the warmest around, Blythe avoids stridency, even in all-out mode. And she never settles for mere volume alone. She is a serious, attentive artist.

Many singers in recital prefer their accompanists to keep the lid lowered on the piano. Blythe had nothing to fear in the way of competition. And that left Warren Jones, long one of the most sought-after accompanists in the business, free to dig into the keyboard parts of a program rich in emotion and color.

Three painstakingly crafted songs by Henri Duparc found both artists at a peak of expressive intensity. The mezzo delivered Au pays ou se fait la guerre with particular insight. She held nothing back vocally, yet never dented the work's refinements as she created a compelling portrait of a woman waiting for a lover gone to war.

Manuel de Falla's atmospheric, often rhythmically galvanizing Siete canciones populares Espanolas turn up frequently on vocal recitals, but usually not with so much vitality and sheer force. Blythe exploited the practically baritonal deepness of her lower register to extract every ounce of earthiness from these short, vivid songs, especially in Polo. But she also filed down the voice when necessary, putting quite a lovely spin on the lullaby Nana.

The 2006-2007 season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series has an abundance of Brahms woven through it. This event offered a generous sampling of his lieder, including the Four Serious Songs, his sobering, autumnal reflections on death. Blythe summoned for this music an appropriately dark, stirring tone. She sang a group of the composer's earlier songs with similar thoughtfulness and, in Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen, considerable lyricism.

Jones, a model of technical security and interpretive nuance in partnering Blythe, got the stage to himself for three passionate piano pieces by Brahms and played them as impressively as everything else.

Modern sounds abound

Contemporary music on the calendar worth noting includes the premiere of a work commissioned by the adventurous ensemble called Ruckus to mark the 40th anniversary of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Coming to Life: Generation, Transition, Interlocking of Phases, by award-winning Italian composer and teacher Carlo Alessandro Landini, is scored for flute, clarinet, cello, violin, piano and lots of percussion. It will be performed on a program at 8 tonight in UMBC's Fine Arts Recital Hall, 1000 Hilltop Circle. Free admission. Information: 410-455-2787,

This weekend, the excellent Monument Piano Trio will focus on American music. Works by two of today's most gifted composers, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Paul Schoenfield, along with the late Alan Hovhaness and a neglected talent from the first half of the 20th century, Charles Wakefield Cadman, will be performed at 7 p.m. Sunday at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. Tickets: 410-385-2638.

Last week had intriguing new sounds, too, thanks to the Concert Lab at the Maryland Institute College of Art, including the premiere of Baltimore composer Larry Hoffman's Colors. This engaging mix of pointillistic dabs and jazzy riffs was commissioned and strongly performed by trumpeter Andrew Balio and percussionist David DePeters. Cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski shone in brilliant pieces by Lutoslawski and Hindemith. Computer-generated images shown with most of the program were less memorable.

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