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Bejun Mehta at JCCGW

Bejun Mehta, countertenorThe last time Ionarts attended a concert at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, it meant a perilous drive to Rockville through rain and floods. For a recital by celebrated countertenor Bejun Mehta (his first ever in the Washington area), rain attempted to dissuade us from making the trip once again, but an impressive crowd for a Sunday night filled the center's small auditorium. This was in part a consolation for having had to miss the Washington Concert Opera Orlando with Mehta, which Jens reviewed, while I was in Baltimore listening to Hélène Grimaud.

The story of Bejun Mehta borders on incredible, a celebrated boy soprano who was all but washed up after his voice broke into a mediocre baritone, before he discovered his countertenor voice. Since a 1998 breakthrough performance with New York City Opera, Mehta has sung in operas and concerts around the world. We have noted him before as Oberon at Glyndebourne and as Tamerlano with Les Talens Lyriques. His musical connections have been fortunate -- his father is Zubin Mehta's cousin, and he has been championed by Leonard Bernstein and Marilyn Horne -- but his success would not have been possible without a voice that is remarkable among countertenors.

It was Baroque opera, of course, that really made the rebirth of the countertenor possible. Beyond that core repertory, however, countertenors have been trying to annex other music, with mixed results. Mehta was entirely convincing in this recital, a sagely programmed Liederabend that was, with a few minor blemishes, exquisitely performed. Mehta's voice is velours from bottom to (almost top), rarely shrill and joined well as it descends into the normal male range. Excellent breath support allows him to spin out lovely, long vocal lines, and he has a charismatic stage presence.

The lion's share of the songs were in German, easy to understand and beautifully pronounced: one would expect nothing less of Mehta, who studied German literature at Yale. His biography says that he is scheduled to give recitals -- perhaps this program? -- at the Musikfest Bremen, the Theater an der Wien, and the Frankfurt Opera, which means we will have a chance to read what German-speaking critics think of Mehta's German. Mehta sang the entire recital from memory, too, a week after singing the role of Orlando from memory.

Mehta on Disc:
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Handel, Giulio Cesare, Kožená, Minkowski (2003)

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Handel, Rinaldo, Bartoli, Daniels, Hogwood (2000)

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Bejun (1992, as a treble)
The concert opened with a set of lesser-known Mozart songs for the anniversary that refuses to end. Die Verschweigung was particularly beautiful, a strophic love song with a charming refrain fitted with musical embellishments. Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhafters verbrannte was much more operatic, a sort of dramatic recitative. It was a bit odd to hear a countertenor sing this piece, for a female narrator, about burning her lover's songs to her. The most moving piece in the Mozart set was An die Freude (poem by Johann Peter Uz, not Schiller), especially the third stanza, the poet's prayer to his muse, which Mehta sang mostly with his eyes closed. The enthusiastic crowd could not refrain from clapping after almost every song, although the program specifically requested them to hold their applause until the end of each set.

The middle portion of the recital was the most pleasing, a set of songs by Schubert and, even better, one by Wolf. In the former, Frühlingsglaube and the Lied der Mignon were gentle and gorgeous in tone. Schubert made at least three settings of the latter poem, by Goethe, and many other composers also tried their hand with it. This one (D. 877) is an exquisite little song, in a minor key and gently paced. It was a nice touch to follow Der Tod und das Mädchen, which ended with the piano postlude slowing like the last pulses of the maiden's heart, with Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen, as a sort of epitaph on the maiden's death. The latter song's refrain has a chromatic descent at its midpoint that Mehta tuned and set down perfectly each time.

Hugo Wolf, composer (1860-1903)In the final Schubert selection, Der Musensohn, it was the rollicking accompaniment with its driving bass that was most pleasing. It seemed to betray the influence of legendary accompanist Gerald Moore, and Mehta's accompanist, Kevin Murphy (who works at the Metropolitan Opera and is the husband of soprano Heidi Grant Murphy), had his power appropriately scaled to Mehta's voice without ever being a shrinking violet. One could often see him mouthing the words that Mehta was singing, measuring his playing precisely to the demands of the text. Those listeners who left at intermission missed the best set, the four Hugo Wolf songs that began the second half. Each was a little jewel, if they were all a little on the languorous side. The unexpected harmonic turns of Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag' erhoben (from the Italienisches Liederbuch) and the marvelous non-resolution of the vocal part at the end of Gebet (from the Mörike-Lieder) were high points.

The final set of English songs was well chosen, with a fine rendition of Bright Is the Ring of Words (Vaughan Williams, setting a Robert Louis Stevenson poem) and a most welcome song by Gerald Finzi, The Sigh (from A Young Man's Exhortation, poem by Thomas Hardy). Finzi is one of the composers whose music I wish were performed more often, and this song is exquisite, especially the final stanza. As for Roger Quilter, who also had three songs in this set, he is the one that Finzi should replace on recital programs around the world. Except for a few strained high notes, the throat inflammation that was reportedly bothering Bejun Mehta was not in evidence, although it may have robbed us of an encore or two.

The next concert at JCCGW will feature the Miró Quartet, on either December 2 (Saturday, 8:30 pm) or December 3 (Sunday, 7:30 pm).

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