A few people walked out during the five-minute standing ovation that followed baritone Ben Holt's first encore last night in the Terrace Theater. They missed one of the most enjoyable musical happenings of the season.
"You pressed me; now I'm going to press you," Holt said, yielding finally to the audience's demand for a second encore. "This is an audience participation number." Then he launched into a hilarious, well-sung and superbly acted "It Ain't Necessarily So," conducting the audience in the choral responses -- which it sang quite capably, following his example, right down to the last "scuddiwah." Inspired by Holt, the audience even tried to echo the high falsetto in which he impersonated Pharaoh's daughter and the quavers when he sang about Methuselah.
A few minutes earlier, after telling the audience, "It's always great to come home," the young, Washington-born singer had chosen "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" for his first encore. He sang it fervently, with great beauty of tone and attention to the words' meaning. "This is one of my favorites," he said. "It speaks very much for me and to me." But in his second encore ("They tell all you chillun/ The Devil's a villain,/ But it ain't necessarily so"), he gave equal time to the opposition.
The fact that Holt is black and proud rang out clearly in his selection of material and his performance. The most riveting moment in a concert that had many great moments came in the first number after intermission, the aria "I won't tell you what I know," sung by Malcolm X -- imprisoned, chained and interrogated under torture -- in the powerful opera "X" by Anthony Davis, which Holt has sung at the New York City Opera. For this number, he took off his tuxedo jacket and held his hands in front, crossed at the wrist, while he sang words that burned: "They always told me, 'You won't have a chance -- you're a Nigger, that's all.' "
The impact was overwhelming, but he maintained a comparable level of intensity and musical quality in a group of spirituals that followed, particularly in "Joshua Fit' de Battle of Jericho" and "Ride On, King Jesus."
But Holt's heritage is only part of his musical equipment. The concert included selections in German (lieder of Schubert and Brahms), French (Poulenc's Prologue to "Les Mamelles de Tire'sias") and Spanish (Ginastera's "Cinco Canciones Popolares Argentinas"), all sung with great power and complete stylistic mastery. Pianist John Keene was an excellent partner throughout, but particularly effective in the selection from "X."
Holt is still very young, but his career, which began here with a victory in the Friday Morning Music Club's Washington International Competition, has already taken him to the Metropolitan Opera and there is no upper limit in sight. His voice is excellent. He uses it with intelligence and (after a bit of warming up) it was perfectly controlled.
But his talent is at least as much theatrical as musical. This quality was most evident in the operatic material on the program, but it showed also in the lieder and the Ginastera songs, each of which he transformed into a tiny drama. His diction in foreign languages (particularly in Spanish) was so good that sometimes you could reconstitute the text mentally, even if it was unfamiliar, by reading the translation and hearing him sing.