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Alan Held at Wolf Trap

Alan Held, bass-baritoneSometimes Ionarts has to make tough choices, and we are making a lot of them this month, which is one of the busiest for concerts. Friday night, I was certainly tempted to stay close to home and hear the Cuarteto Casals, the young Spanish string quartet that won the Yehudi Menuhin First Prize at the 2000 London International String Quartet Competition, at the Library of Congress. They were scheduled to play Mozart's first string quartet, as well as quartets by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga and, best of all, Zemlinsky. I'm sure it was a good concert, but I was ultimately drawn all the way out to the Barns at Wolf Trap for what turned out to be an extraordinary recital by bass-baritone Alan Held.

Held has a history at Wolf Trap, having been a member of the Wolf Trap Opera Company in 1987 and 1988. Opera listeners around the world now appreciate the talent that this local young singer program helped discover, as Held has gone on to a fine career on the stage. Ionarts has had the good fortune to hear him recently with Washington National Opera as the High Priest in Samson et Dalila in May 2005 and as Wotan in Die Walküre in November 2003. Paris reportedly admired him in the title role of Hindemith's Cardillac last October, too. New York operaphiles with enough intelligence to get to the Met heard him in a stunning Wozzeck recently. (I heard that on the radio broadcast, and it was incendiary.) So here was Held, back at the Barns, to give what he called a "biographical recital" with Kim Pensinger Witman, the director of the Wolf Trap Opera Company, at the piano.

Witman writes about her experiences with the company in a blog, Wolf Trap Opera 2006. In two posts this week -- Back to the Music (February 1) and Now I Remember... (February 2) -- she wrote about rehearsing with Alan Held and putting this recital together. Since there was not a complete program available, I assume that the final sequence of songs was not decided until late in the game. What Held narrated from the stage was a series of pieces that represented in some way the stages of his musical career, including what he sang for auditions at Millikin University and at Wolf Trap, as well as favorite things he has performed over the years. It made for an interesting program, largely because Held has good musical taste.

After opening with an abortive excerpt of Wagner (Wotan's Lebwohl!, the farewell to Brünnhilde in Die Walküre), Held joked, "You didn't think I would open with Wagner, did you?" It would have been just fine with me. He eventually got back to Wagner, happily, with Mein Vater, the prayer of Amfortas in the third act of Parsifal, a role he sang here in Washington in 2000. This music is where Held's voice is so perfect, with clarity of diction and sustained power for Wagner's demanding lines and massive orchestration. I am somewhat disappointed that Held was not engaged as Wotan for Washington National Opera's new Ring cycle, at least not for Das Rheingold next month. However, judging by reputation, Robert Hale should do very well by the role. Before Wagner, we had to pass through Giuseppe Giordani's little trifle, Caro mio ben, which was a much less daring way to begin a recital than with Wotan's farewell. It was paired with Louis Niedermeyer's Pietà, signore, a 19th-century song once thought to be the work of Alessandro Stradella.

Held also told us that the opera he performs the most often is Mozart's Don Giovanni. It was clear why from his rendition of Leporello's catalogue aria, as he pulled out a large phone book hidden in the case of the piano. Held is a text-centered singer, and every piece he performed made clear that he understood what he was singing, in a naturally acted and emoted way. His Leporello was an example of great comic timing. The voice is full, with enough power to shatter glass, which actually happened, as he recounted, during a rehearsal in the Barns when Held was there in 1988, singing a duet in Luisa Miller. He offered the Leporello aria as a tribute to recently departed Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan, who gave Held a warm, encouraging review when he was singing in the Wolf Trap production.

Held's German pronunciation was good, with highlights besides the Wagner being Loewe's Tom der Reimer and Mahler's Der Tambourg'sell. His French was less consistently understandable, but the French selections were the best musical experiences. I had never heard a live performance of Jacques Ibert's Chansons de Don Quichotte (Held sang three of the four), composed for the 1930s movie on the Don Quixote story with Feodor Chaliapin. The last note of the Chanson à Dulcinée was not well placed until the piano accompaniment, wandering through all sorts of foreign harmonies, finally settled into place. This was a minor quibble in this excellent performance, especially the Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte, a sad beautiful poem (by Alexandre Arnoux). The final note ("Ah!") was soft, high, gorgeous, pregnant with mourning. Held was so moved himself that he wiped away tears from his eyes afterward. I was equally overwhelmed by the emotional story of Quixote. To show how quickly he could shift gears, he ended the first half with Ralph's drinking song Quand la flamme de l'amour, from Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth, which was as raucous as the Ibert had been reverent.

For this listener, you cannot go wrong with the exquisite songs of Henri Duparc, a neurotic perfectionist who left behind less than a score of perfectly polished melodic jewels. Duparc generally chose excellent poetry and set it with as much attention to detail as possible. He destroyed scores that were not up to his exacting standards, but what survived is uniformly good listening. In this set of three, it was La vague et la cloche that most impressed me, a setting of a poem about a bleak dream by François Coppée. Held's face and voice were filled with existential bitterness during this song's final lines ("Pourquoi n'as-tu pas dit s'ils ne finiraient pas / L'inutile travail et l'éternel fracas / Dont est fait la vie, hélas, la vie humaine!").

We heard the same acerbic bleakness in two selections from Ned Rorem's War Scenes, Vietnam War-era settings of the Civil War memoir by Walt Whitman, Specimen Days. These heart-breaking songs were the last examples of Held's inventive programming, as he turned for the conclusion of the second half to folksong settings by Aaron Copland and others. I didn't care much for the Hallmark card song by Robert Hutmacher either (Der Gottsucher). Ms. Witman's accompaniment was sensitive and able-fingered. Although one might have wished for more contrasting sounds between the "wave" and "bell" sections of Duparc's La vague et la cloche, there were many examples of interesting color in her part, like her tinkling right-hand bell figures in Tom der Reimer.

This worthy recital was recorded, with an introduction and question period hosted by Rich Kleinfeldt, for broadcast in the series Center Stage from Wolf Trap, on a certain radio station Ionarts loves to hate. They do still have a couple classical music slots each week wedged somewhere between hours and hours of pointless political talk shows. If you want to hear this recital, you can tune in. Other interesting concerts coming up at Wolf Trap include pianist Joyce Yang (February 24), the St. Lawrence String Quartet (March 10), and Trio Solisti (April 21). The small venue at the Barns is well suited to chamber music, if not acoustically perfect (the ideal, of course, being the auditorium at the Corcoran), and although there was a good crowd, seats were available. This being the Barns, you can take your beer or coffee right into your seat with you. No heckling and, please, drive responsibly.

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