Classical review: Opera star Eric Owens presents a serious, stellar concert at Blair

Eric Owens sings serious songs that explore the full spectrum of human sentiment. His recitals, as a general rule, don’t make for easy listening.

owensySo the renowned bass baritone seemed genuinely gratified at the end of his concert on Saturday night at the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall. Owens and his collaborative pianist, Warren Jones, had just finished a program that featured more than its fair share of dark, emotionally wrenching songs. Yet the hall was as full at the end of the concert as it had been at the beginning.

“Thank you so much for getting through that first half,” said Owens, who was basking in the glow of a warm and sustained standing ovation. “You were there with me the whole time.”

In recent years, the 42-year-old Owens has enjoyed considerable success as an opera singer. He appeared in the premiere of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, sang the title role in Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel and was lavishly praised for his performance of Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.”

One might have expected Owens’ Nashville program to have included a few show-stopping opera arias. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, performing subdued German and French art songs. No one complained. Owens’ dramatic stage presence and rich, expressive singing kept us riveted in our seats.

He opened the recital with Hugo Wolf’s “Three Songs on Poems by Michelangelo,” the last songs the composer wrote before his death in an asylum in 1903. These are among the most profound and also somber songs that Wolf ever wrote. The second piece, “Everything Ends Which Comes to Be,” is practically the embodiment of resignation. Owens sang these songs with a burnished tone and a palpable sense of sadness. Jones provided sensitively nuanced accompaniment.

From that abyss, Owens leapt into the Mariana Trench of Robert Schumann’s dark psychology. Schumann had a lifelong fascination with literature that often had a dark, fantastical and even sinister bent. For instance, he set to music Hans Christian Andersen’s “A Mother’s Dream,” about a woman cradling her infant while crows outside the window gather with evil intent. Owens inhabited this song, singing of the mother with warm expression and of the crows with maliciousness

The three Franz Schubert songs that ended the recital’s first half found their inspiration in ancient mythology.  Despair was nowhere to be found in these pieces. Owens sang of “Prometheus” and the “Journey to Hades” with rage and defiance.

Owens’ voice had seemed stentorian and steely in his German selections. After intermission, he brought a softer, gauzier vocal quality to the program’s French songs. He sang Debussy’s “Beautiful Evening” with a lustrous sound that imparted just a hint of melancholy. His performance of Ravel’s “Drinking Song” was a hoot, with the bass baritone swaying tipsily in front of the Steinway. Jones proved to be an expert designated driver, playing all of the French music with precision, brilliance and sensitivity.

Given Owens’ success in the Met’s “Ring Cycle,” everyone now expects him to perform Wagner. On Saturday, he obliged with the unexpected, a Wagner song called “The Two Grenadiers” that is actually sung in French. Owens performed this number with élan.

At the end of such a long and often unsparing recital, one might have anticipated nothing more than polite applause. The audience, however, greeted Owens and Jones with a rousing ovation. The duo returned that favor with two unforgettably beautiful encores – Purcell’s “Music for a While” and Copland’s setting of “At the River.”

Photo Credit: Paul Sirochman

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.