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In performance: Anthony Dean Griffey

Web-only review:

Griffey makes himself heard at Vocal Arts Society recital
by Joe Banno

The Vocal Arts Society deserves applause for helping push the boundaries of the classical voice recital by including American vernacular music. But in a selection of American folk songs on Anthony Dean Griffey's Terrace Theater program on Wednesday, the mix of singer and material felt contrived.

It was an inspired idea to start the evening with folk music veteran Paul Brown playing an exuberant, extended solo on bluegrass fiddle as people entered the hall. But even bringing the lights down and placing the focus squarely on Brown did nothing to stop an unreceptive audience from drowning him out with chatter. (A woman near me archly quipped, "Maybe if we all start clapping, he'll stop.")

But even if Griffey's entrance quieted the crowd, his singing didn't quiet doubts about his chops as a folk singer. His tenor is an impressive instrument -- ample, resonant and emotionally expressive, its tone generally dark-hued, though with nasal accents lending it idiosyncratic color. But it's all too big and operatic for the Southern tunes he sang, and his conservatory-trained vowels and shadings of tone were an impediment to loose-limbed numbers like "Cumberland Gap." Brown, who switched to banjo for the set, sounded subdued and cautious next to Griffey's Wagnerian outpourings.
(read more after the jump)

The singer, in fact, kept the volume cranked to 11 for most of the evening -- exciting as pure sound, but oversize for three perfumed, salon-scaled songs by Charles Griffes, and arguably too vehement for a pair of James Joyce settings by Samuel Barber (all partnered by the ever-eloquent pianist Warren Jones). Griffey's delivery was quite lovely and moving, though, in those instances where he chose to pull his voice down to softer dynamics, as he often did in the world-premiere performance of Kenneth Frazelle's cycle "Songs in the Rear View Mirror."

The texts, written by the composer, are evocative poems inspired by the work of writer James Agee, photographer Walker Evans and visual artist William Christenberry, as well as a recent visit Frazelle made to Hale County, Ala. Ranging from a cutesy kudzu tribute to to a harrowing depiction of parental sexual abuse, the cycle's poetry covers an almost impossible emotional range, but is set to a neoromantic score that leans too heavily on all-purpose wistfulness and faux-pop jauntiness. What stays in the mind most is the deep vein of sorrow and disturbing intensity Griffey drew from the text.

--Joe Banno

By Anne Midgette  |  May 7, 2010; 6:04 AM ET
Categories:  festivals , local reviews  
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I don't agree that Griffey's decision to include folk songs in his program on Wednesday was contrived. As when writing program notes I saw a puzzle to be fitted together. Griffey's selection of American folk songs from the South was probably an attempt to show that American vernacular music and the American art song tradition represented by Barber and Griffes are the building blocks for Kenneth Frazelle's neoromantic cycle "Songs in the Rear View Mirror."

Posted by: Susannetta | May 7, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

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