Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Meaning It

October 30, 2011

Simon Keenlyside
The great English baritone Simon Keenlyside made a much anticipated recital debut in Southern California on Saturday night at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. He’s reportedly not a fan of frequent travels far from his family and home these days, so this visit was a treat and an appreciative, large audience showed up for the program. The evening included mostly traditional recital material with songs from Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Duparc, and George Butterworth, which served as an island of music from between 1880 and 1911 in an otherwise all baroque weekend for me. And probably the best thing about the whole evening was how seriously musical it was. I don’t mean that it wasn’t filled with any charming or lighthearted moments, but that Keenlyside was clearly intent on presenting a thought-out, professional program. This was no celebrity showcase in leather pants and knowing smile, but a bona fide vocal recital. Keenlyside was clearly engaged with all the material and was physically involved in the characters contained in the music. He spoke eloquently about the subtext of the songs from George Butterworth, which he argued are tied to the time leading up to WWI and the tragic loses suffered during war despite the music’s pretty pastoral sound.

But the evening did have some bumps. Keenlyside sounded like he might be suffering from a mild cold although no announcement to this effect was ever made. Mahler’s “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht” was interrupted midway by an outright cough, with Keenlyside starting over from the beginning. More than that, many of the pianissimo high notes seemed unstable and there was a hint of gravel here and there elsewhere throughout the night. Not so much that it created havoc, but enough to notice. When Keenlyside got louder and more dramatic the issue seemed to subside. But both the Mahler and Strauss were plagued by this despite the baritone’s excellent German. Strauss’ “Befreit” was particularly affecting with its dramatic proclamations of love in the face of death. Keenlyside has always had an affinity not only for his native English, but also French, and the highlight of the night was in the lovely intimate intonation of the Debussy songs. Keenlyside is still one of the world’s leading Pelleases and his affinity for Debussy made for some stirring and outright romantic moments. Things wrapped up with four encores from the likes of George Ireland and Schubert. But Keenlyside's commitment to the material never flagged and the show did leave me wishing we'll have more chances to hear him back in L.A. again soon.


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