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From Schade and Braun, A Rich Mix of Song

This review was originally published in the Washington Post (From Schade and Braun, A Rich Mix of Song, October 21).

In a varied and well-balanced Vocal Arts Society program of duets, arias, lieder, and mélodies for tenor and baritone, Michael Schade and Russell Braun, husband to accompanist Carolyn Maule, started with Monteverdi madrigals. Both singers delved headlong into Tornate, O Cari Baci with much gusto and energy and to great effect with the audience. Monteverdi, I am sad to say, did not survive that treatment. Carolyn Maule's clear and precise but rather timid playing was drowned out and the texture that makes Monteverdi so unique and ahead of his time was lost.

Next Schade got to display Mozart's earthy wit in songs that hinted at known melodies without actually quoting any. In these four seldom heard songs Schade seemed like a tenor version of the lesser aspects of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's art: mannered, slightly stilted, and impeccable—literally to a fault. His instrument is strong, very focused and clean, and almost piercing, and with it he conducts precision operations in music. What I missed was a bit more inviting, open quality.

The torch was then passed on to Russell Braun and Schubert. An assortment of four songs, the highlight of which was Doppelgänger, was done with just the right mix of eeriness and panache. Carolyn Maule, too, found some more energy that she injected into these as well as the following Schumann pieces.

The Schumann offered five duets—three songs from op. 43, the Intermezzo (op. 74, no. 2), and Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen (op. 138, no. 9)—all of which were true marvels. As the valuable Vocal Arts Society program supplement to the worthless (informationless) Playbill pointed out, these Schumann works are better described as trios for two voices and piano. The piano part was not only notably more challenging to Carolyn Maule but also plays an active part in the songs. Utterly enjoyable, sung with much verve, and all too rarely heard, they brought the first half of the program to an outstanding end.

Gabriel Fauré's last and short song cycle L'Horizon Chimérique was a welcome treat of little song paintings, movingly depicted by Braun. Schade was impressive in Ravel's Cinq mélodies popularies grecques. The songs themselves—short, faux-exotic, and lithe—are a delight, and suddenly Schade showed subtleties and pianos and his tone seemed perfectly suited to the French text. Splendid, indeed. A little gaffe when he started the long, unaccompanied section of "Quel galant m'est comparable" in the wrong key, only to catch himself within seconds, was disarming and amusing alike.

What followed were all duets: Saint Saëns's El desdichado (very well done) and Fauré's Puisqu'ici-bas, beautifully set to a Victor Hugo poem which is itself a bit ironic, given that Hugo hated music. Again, Schade and Braun excelled as the evening got progressively more enjoyable.

John Greer's setting of Québecois folk songs, introduced by Schade with slightly self-deprecating charm and wit (thanking the audience for being so Canada-friendly), were fine closing statements. Folk or popular songs sung by operatic voices can often be overkill and more embarrassment than entertainment, but "Les Raftsmen" & Co. were gaudy and fun without ever being cheesy or saccharine.

Another Canadian, Geoffry O'Hara's song (and Enrico Caruso favorite) "Your Eyes Have Told Me What I Did Not Know" was Russell Braun's encore—"sung in a different key" as he said, thereby coyly poking fun at his colleague's earlier mishap. A French piece was announced by Schade as the second encore—and promised to be "still pretty good," even without being Canadian. It was the most famous tenor-baritone duet there is, Bizet's "Au fond du temple saint" from Les Pêcheurs de perles. Gorgeous and with plenty of opportunities for the singers to let their voices boom, it brought the crowd in the Terrace Theater to their feet.

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