A sparse crowd at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Kansas City, MO, was treated to music like ‘buttah’ last Thursday, Oct. 29. OK, it was in the middle of the week, but it wasn’t a World Series night. Football? Don’t you have a DVR? This was Jay Carter, William Jewell and Yale grad, and soon to be Dr. Carter. Among countertenors he is a champ, and he showed it. Pianist for the evening was Richard Williams, who is an asset in any ensemble.
Perhaps the only non-brilliant tones of the evening were in the first vocal line of Purcell’s (realized by Benjamin Britten) “Music for a while” from Oedipus, Z. 583. Then the full countertenor kicked in; the rest was, as they say, history. The formal drama of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was realized in Carter’s expressive smoothness.
For Purcell’s, “In guilty night” (Saul and the Witch of Endor), Z. 134, Carter was joined by Sarah Reed, soprano, and bass, Joshua Lawlor, who filled in characters as needed to complete the masque ensemble, and to reinforce the concept that Kansas City is replete in musical artists. The ensembles were interactive, allowing the lines to weave, the voices were strong, even when soft. Mr. Williams was magical in deriving a harpsichord from the grand piano. The dry recitatives formed the stylized musical conversations of the time. Lack of financial support prevented development of full-fledged operas during the Restoration..
The French section consisted of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Chanson à boire, from Chansons gaillardes; Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947): Trois jours de vendange; and Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921): Danse macabre. The latter is most recognized as an instrumental work; the linked performance by Nelson Eddy is an octave lower and several beats per minute slower than Mr. Carter’s interpretation, which was decidedly preferable. Carter was playful on the chorus and expressive as needed on the rest. The language flowed smoothly, whether staccato or legato.
Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856): Belsatzar, Op. 57 and Waldesgespräch from Liederkreis, Op. 39, No. 3; and Hugo Wolf’s (1860-1903): Bei Einer Trauung from Mörike-Lieder; filled the German section. The sung description of Belshazzar’s feast (the one with the writing on the wall) was filled with irony, approbation, and fine singing. Mr. Carter’s storytelling skills took the music far beyond the right notes, timbre, voice placement, and pronunciation at the right place; in fact, those skills were subservient to the communication.
An English and American section followed, with George Butterworth’s (1885-1916): “Is my team ploughing?” from Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad; Trad., arr. by Steven Mark Kohn (b. 1957): “The Ocean Burial;” “Full fathom five” from Songs for Ariel, (1962) by Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998); and Trad., arr. Kohn: “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” the latter an American add on song which could have been sung for a very long time.
“The Ocean Burial,” was sung briskly enough to demonstrate the sea chanty source of the tune, but with enough tempo and vocal variation to maintain the pathos of the seafarer. Setting folk music as art song maintains the treasure trove in print, and permits listeners and performers, alike, to visit, however briefly, bygone eras.
Singers who purport to be practitioners of the art of the countertenor would do well to study the example of Jay Carter. Those who wish to be entertained with high art rather than Thursday Night Football. . . .