Quinn Kelsey's More Than Just a Pretty Voice

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Quinn Kelsey has a fine, full and fluid baritone voice, but it was his sheer musicianship that made his Monday night recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater so exciting.

The distinction is important. There are artists who win us over with the honeyed beauty of their sound -- one thinks immediately of soprano Montserrat Caballe and tenor Luciano Pavarotti (both of them, alas, now retired). Other musicians, just as satisfying in their way, are compelled to do more with less.

Kelsey's voice is large, healthy, versatile and attractive but, in truth, there are many others out there that are equally sumptuous. What makes him special -- and very special indeed -- is the way he moves into whatever material he sings and inhabits it entirely. William Butler Yeats once mused poetically on knowing the dancer from the dance; it is similarly difficult to separate Kelsey from the music he sings.

He sets a mood immediately -- whether the loopy, comical world of Polyphemus the giant in Handel's "Acis and Galatea" (the aria, here described as "I Rage, I Melt, I Burn," is much better known as "O Ruddier Than the Cherry") or the bleakest despair of the Mussorgsky "Songs and Dances of Death." He is always believable -- indeed, he seems to be living through whatever he is singing about before our eyes and ears.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) was not a great composer, but he was an unmistakable one: The three settings of Shakespeare that Kelsey sang, with their tart, tidy dissonances, could have been written by no other artist. A set of three songs by Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler's cycle "Songs of a Wayfarer" all come out of mid-19th century, middle-European folk traditions, but Kelsey imbued the Mahler works with just the additional trace of fin de si├Ęcle neuroticism that they demand. And it would be hard to imagine a more harrowing reading of the ghostly, ghastly Mussorgsky songs.

The concert was presented by the Vocal Arts Society, in tandem with the Marilyn Horne Foundation, which supports young and developing artists. And there were two of them to support on Monday. Because Kelsey's usual pianist, Craig Rutenberg, was forced to bow out because of a broken wrist, his place was taken by Tamara Sanikidze, a doctoral student in music at the University of Maryland. Under the circumstances, she did an amazing job, especially in the Mahler and Mussorgsky pieces, where her work with Kelsey seemed all but unanimous in intent and execution.

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