In performance: Latin Days at Wolf Trap
Blier's Latin soul lacks pizzazz at Wolf Trap
by Charles T. Downey
Pianist Steven Blier returned to the Barns at Wolf Trap on Sunday afternoon for another recital with some of Wolf Trap Opera Company’s annual crop of young singers. With an encyclopedic knowledge of so many corners of the song repertoire, Blier’s signature is an uncanny fusion of pieces on both sides of the divide between popular and art song. He manages not only to unearth unknown repertoire of surprising appeal but also to combine it with more familiar favorites in ways that create unexpected connections.
How much more disappointing, then, that his latest recital, called “Latin Days, American Nights,” did not live up to those expectations. Most of the program was pleasant enough for summer listening but not much more, either fluffy pablum or harmless fun, depending on your point of view. Not that welcome discoveries were entirely missing, especially two songs by Samuel Barber, whose centenary this year continues to offer opportunities to appreciate his strengths as a songwriter, and others by William Bolcom, Carlos López Buchardo, and Jorge Anckermann.
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Tenor Paul Appleby was the highlight of an earnest but undistinguished vocal quartet, displaying a voice of considerable weight in Charles Griffes’s “Evening Song” and a dulcet head voice in Carlos Guastavino’s sultry “Cita.” The voices mostly sounded straitjacketed, with all four singers straightening their vibrato at times, more than once to the point of ugliness. One can hardly be surprised that musicians trained principally as opera singers would not excel at singing music by Tom Waits, Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, or The Bobs, and approximations of Latin dancing were painfully cute. Even Blier seemed off his game, having to restart two songs and relying in the last set on steady percussionist Danny Villanueva to right an occasionally unsteady rhythmic sense.
--Charles T. Downey
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