Sometimes, a musician with a fist full of competition victories but little evident talent hits town, and you wonder whether the judges were asleep or just had an off night. But there's no doubt why baritone Ben Holt won last year's Friday Morning Music Club International Competition, or the Independent Black Opera Singers Vocal Competition. The young artist is technically secure, endowed with splendid vocal equipment and well on his way to coming to grips with the artistic heart of the repertoire.
His program, yesterday at the Phillips Collection, was varied enough to give a good overview of his strengths.
The secular cantata "Piange, Gemo, Sospiro" by Vivaldi gave him a chance to show off his considerable dramatic talent, and in the Bach aria that followed, his voice took on a more heroic quality.
In lieder by Schubert and Schumann he was able to establish a mood and a context instantly. Schubert's "Im Fruling" needed a more leisurely approach to the ornamental figures and a more pensive attack, but the dark quality he found for "Fahrt zum Hades" was exactly right.
A rather serious account of Poulenc's "Le Bestiaire," a marvelously intense performance of Ravel's "Chansons Madecasse" with superb piano, flute and cello support and a powerful set of songs by black composers rounded out the program.
Pianist Varda Shamban, steady as a rock, gave particularly poetic support in the Schumann songs.