The mellifluous, ruby rich tones of baritone Simon Keenlyside filled Union College’s Memorial Chapel Wednesday night as part of the college’s Concert Series.
The Metropolitan Opera star presented a varied program of what he told the crowd reflected his preference of doing a few things from “left field” from the “wide canvas of repertoire.” It made for not only interesting listening but many light-hearted moments. Keenlyside himself prefers the casual manner. He walks about, gestures expansively, shrugs, or stands quietly contemplating the next phrase all to tell the story of each song.
His accompanist was the very able Malcolm Martineau, whose light touch, fluent technique and keen ear kept the balances exact and set the mood for each song.
What impressed throughout the evening was the consistent excellence of Keenlyside’s darkly hued voice that projected with a ringing resonance over a wide range of dynamics, superbly nuanced and finished phrases, and effortless breath control. His diction in the German and French was clarity itself. His voice, too, has a beautiful warm quality that is comfortably embracing to which he applies only a discrete amount of vibrato. His energy could only come from his joy of singing. It was a gift of a performance.
They began with eight songs by Franz Schubert from his “Schwanengesang” (1828), which spoke about love, death, autumn and his final song that was a farewell. Each song’s text had a different poet. Of all the songs, “Nachtstuck” (“Nocturne”) was especially poignant.
For Francis Poulenc’s songs about seven painters from his “Le travail du peintre” (1956) with text by Paul Eluard, Keenlyside chose a big sound with broader colors. The piano part was very dramatic, often whimsical. The French words seem to carry more weight than the musical line, which was subtle with impressionistic overtones. The subject matter proved most interesting.
Six of Johannes Brahms songs were performed, each from a different year and by a different poet. They spoke of love, despair, longing, and introspection and musically ranged from the lyrically charming to the ironic. Keenlyside sang with strong connections to each phrase.
The rest of the program brought chuckles from the crowd. Keenlyside struck a music hall pose with his right hand in his pocket and a light-hearted manner. He was like Yves Montand at the Opera Comique. He sped through Poulenc’s “Paganini” and his four poems by Guillaume Apollinaire about saucy ladies or actresses with a graceful panache, then sat for a break so Martineau could play a sweetly melodic “Pavane” from Poulenc’s “Suite francaise” (1935).
The intriguing “Histoires naturells” (1906) by Maurice Ravel with text by Jules Renard about a peacock, cricket, swan, kingfisher and a guinea-fowl were marvelously exotic.
After prolonged applause and still in exceptional voice, Keenlyside gave two encores: Schubert’s “L’incanto degli occhi” and Faure’s “Le Secret.”