An Ars Lyrica House Concert
By JOHN DeMERS
It’s always a pleasure to experience chamber music in an actual chamber – and since most concerts are given in theaters, opera houses or at least recital halls, it can be a rare pleasure indeed. Houston’s own Ars Lyrica, however, is working to make the “house concert” a regular part of its commitment to serving up plenty of music that no one else seems to be doing.
As Ars Lyrica and its artistic director Matthew Dirst are particularly committed to music of the Baroque period, which came before the “classical period” and therefore sometimes gets overlooked (except for maybe Bach and Brahms, plus Vivaldi at weddings), that is the group’s usual sound. Think harpsichord, which will immediately make you think powdered wigs. But every once in a while – last night, for instance – Ars Lyrica takes a leap of faith away from its comfort zone and presents something different. The house concert built around the talents of mezzo Jamie Barton was one of those occasions.
Barton’s is a gifted voice, as we know if we’ve followed her progress up through the ranks of the Houston Grand Opera Studio onto the main stage for many of its productions. For the time being, instead of living somewhere else and coming to Houston when she has a gig, Barton is living here and traveling to sing everywhere else. These travels are set to include the Metropolitan Opera this coming September, in the Met’s production of Die Zauberflote. Which is all great: this way we get to hear her more often. The program she sang for Ars Lyrica, with the talented Joseph Li on the piano, was as varied in style and emotion as it was rich in sophistication.
Hearing an opera singer from two feet away is a unique thrill, since Barton and her peers are trained to blast their voices off the back wall of an opera house seating 2,400. From the singer’s perspective, this means choosing songs that probably aren’t anything ever associated with Birgit Nilsson, as well as keeping gestures more restrained, more natural. Barton excelled at what might be called this “classical cabaret,” whether she was picking her way through Mahler’s lovely but difficult “Ich Atmet’ Einen Linden Duft” (there was a lot of singing about plants and other forms of nature in this show) or indulging in the passions of Rachmaninov’s “Vesennije Vody.” The two songs by this Russian great that closed the program were the highpoint for many, as Barton found the perfect balance between living-room restraint and the roiling passions in the music. Or, as the Georgia native cautioned those gathered before the first Rachmaninov, “Ja Khdu Tebya”: “This is a gonna get loud, y’awl.”
Equally effective, but for quite different reasons, was Libby Larson’s “Empty Song (A Tango)” from something intriguingly titled Love After 1950. In the sadsack spirit of “One Less Bell to Answer, One Less Egg to Fry,” this seemingly random and therefore Sondheimian catalog of things lost with a relationship allowed Barton to perform at her most conversational. It’s the kind of conversation, in fact, that could almost happen in a hotel bar – and I for one wanted to buy the lady a drink.
In the course of the lovely evening, bookended by conversation with food and wine, Dirst did a little promotion for Ars Lyrica’s upcoming major deal: a New Year’s Eve concert and gala at the Hobby Center that will star Barton along with soprano Ava Pine, whose done a house concert with the group herself. You might want to consider ringing in the new with the American première of J. A. Hasse’s Neapolitan masterpiece Marc Antonio e Cleopatra. A festive party follows in the Hobby Center’s Founders Room, with champagne, hors d’oeuvres and prizes at Ars Lyrica’s annual silent auction. For more information, check out the group’s website www.arslyricahouston.org.