Music Review: Teddy Tahu Rhodes at the Kennedy Center

Teddy Tahu Rhodes brought his striking baritone to the Kennedy Center.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes brought his striking baritone to the Kennedy Center. (Andrew Mckinnon Presentations)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

A voice should be an expression of the person who produces it. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, the New Zealand baritone, has a voice that fits him to a T: It's strikingly beautiful, with a rough-hewn quality, slightly self-consciously produced, with an overlay of macho.

Rhodes, whom the Vocal Arts Society presented at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Tuesday night, is an opera singer. That is to say, he is not a born recitalist. His program, earnest and appealing, was certainly the result of considered thought, orienting itself around two themes: songs in English and songs about travel. These were smart focal points for him, because when he was singing lusty songs in English about traveling -- Vaughan Williams's "The Vagabond" from his "Songs of Travel," John Ireland's "Songs of the Sea" -- he seemed most on his home turf. When he moved into other territory, such as Ireland's more painterly "The Bells of San Marie," you could sense him gearing up to create something -- this was the self-conscious part.

For audiences, the two main focal points about Rhodes are his looks and his voice. These points help distract listeners from a certain amount of approximation in the singing itself. Because he projects the character of a diamond in the rough, they forgive him for sometimes hurling his voice at high notes without quite nailing them. Because he is an opera singer, they expect him to sing loudly, even to equate loudness with feeling (every mention of "Liebe," for instance, in Beethoven's song cycle "An die ferne Geliebte," the evening's sole non-English piece, became a veritable roar); and don't notice that when he sings quietly, he doesn't give the voice much support.

In short, he offered muscle; to provide the nuance, there was Craig Rutenberg, the pianist, who outdid himself as a sensitive, supportive, reflective accompanist.

Rhodes certainly animated the music. His brief spoken insights into his own interest in the songs he'd chosen -- summing up Robert Louis Stevenson's biography to contextualize the poems of "Songs of Travel" -- added a nice personal touch. (He mentioned at one point that he had recently married "a beautiful New York girl," but he didn't mention that she is the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, whom the Vocal Arts Society presented last season.) And he physically flung himself into the pieces, planting his feet wide for songs of big, dark emotion (Roger Quilter's "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind"), or throwing his body into songs that he felt needed putting across (like the final, encorelike set of Australian folk songs in arrangements by Sean O'Boyle).

He also made some nice choices in a rather limited, but also rather unusual program. Juxtaposing familiar Shakespeare texts in different settings -- Quilter's and Gerald Finzi's versions of "Come Away Death" and "O Mistress Mine" from "Twelfth Night" -- shed light on the composers' decisions: Quilter's "Come Away Death," dark and anguished, took the words at face value, while Finzi's, regretful and more resigned, seemed to read them within the context of the play. Finzi's Shakespeare songs, light and offbeat and sensitive to the words, were particularly delightful.

As for Rhodes's voice: In the lower middle register, it's dark, rich, warm, with a hint of a burr. Think firm oak beams touched by sunlight. Though billed as a baritone, he sounds as if he's heading into bass-baritone territory. He doesn't spare it, and as a result it seemed to dry out as it went along; the forte climaxes tended more and more to emerge as straight, hard, flat tones that took a while to find their natural bloom. But at its best -- in Vaughan Williams's nostalgically poignant "Youth and Love" -- it was beautiful.

Overall, the program evoked a certain bygone period of English (-language) music, tinged with heartiness and nostalgia, which Rhodes can put across. And he capped it, thoughtfully, with an American encore: Gene Scheer's "American Anthem," which appeared prominently in Ken Burns's documentary series "The War." The whole evening generated tremendous goodwill. One was left appreciating him as a person and as a voice, if not entirely as an artist.

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