By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; C03
The opening set of a song recital reveals a lot about what is to come. Some singers plan something beautiful and easy to win over the audience and get over their nerves. Some plan something flashy to take the audience by storm.
Gerald Finley, the Canadian baritone whom the Vocal Arts Society presented at the Austrian Embassy on Wednesday night, opened his recital with a two-part song by Robert Schumann on Heine texts: "Tragödie I, II." The first part was violent and full of aching bravado: A lover orders his beloved to run off with him, while the piano sounds a final note of warning. The second part was quiet, with a stillness beyond sorrow: The young couple, lost, wanders until they die.
Finley didn't show off in either. He simply shaded his voice to every meaning and nuance of the words, knowing exactly what he wanted to convey, but without any hint of mannerism; illustrating emotional and musical opposites with ease. It was the work of an artist, not a craftsman. It was an appropriate start to a formidable recital.
Singers can have trouble untangling art from artifice: There's so much technique and know-how involved in producing an operatic sound that the voice can become like a mantle, something to be donned at appropriate moments. Finley, by contrast, was all natural. He could take his voice and expand it to a stentorian roar (in Schumann's "Belsazar"), or pare it down to a falsetto as tender as a new crocus (in the same composer's "Dein Angesicht," your face), or even carry it over into a kind of pop-song folksiness at moments in "The Daisies" by Samuel Barber.
But high or low, whatever its timbre, it was always essentially his voice, produced as part of the same fluid line: It didn't break, or divide, or leap abruptly from one mood or register to another. And every song was offered with the same fundamental directness, or honesty, as if he were speaking to his listeners.
That honesty applied, too, to the quality of his observations. To say Finley is a brilliant actor might give the erroneous impression that he struck poses, or declaimed, or seemed to do things to bring the songs across. What he did was simply inhabit them, with tremendous precision of detail, so that each one came alive, a small world of its own.
There was the pastoral hum of "Mein Wagen rollet langsam" (My cart rolls slowly), in which the baritone is startled from a sunny reverie into, briefly, the range of a tenor when three children jump up to tease him. There was the gruff patriotic bombast of "Die beiden Grenadiere," the two grenadiers, heartbroken that their emperor is vanquished. There were, in Ravel's "Histoires naturelles," the finicky uptightness of "Le grillon" (the cricket), or, in "Le martin-pêcheur" (the kingfisher), the held breath of the enraptured human observer who doesn't want to scare the beautiful bird away. (This was expressed, at the beginning, in a shining skein of song extended like a soap bubble between a few spare piano chords.)
All of this is what songs are supposed to do, but very few singers are actually able to get them to do it so consistently, and with such easy precision. Finley has already distinguished himself as an opera singer, particularly as the star of John Adams's "Doctor Atomic." He may be even better as a recitalist.
The program was also beautifully assembled, with a focus on two of the year's birthday boys: Schumann (200 this year) on the first half, showing the composer in a range of moods from short and sweet to bombastic (with four dramatic ballads); and on the second, four songs by Barber (a centenarian), along with the Ravel cycle and a set of Charles Ives. Julius Drake, the accompanist, seemed to have to work to achieve the power Finley got without effort: There was more drive, and a little sloppiness, in some of his work on the first half, but he was certainly expressive.
Finley, though, was far less obtrusive, and more effective. He made it look easy. Would that it were. From the applause, it seemed that everyone present would have been happy to hear him sing whatever he wanted.