John Brancy’s debut recital with Vocal Arts DC was going to be different. That was the advance word. Brancy is a young baritone who’s already building a solid operatic résumé but who hasn’t yet given a professional recital; his recital partner, the pianist Peter Dugan, has a burgeoning solo career of his own. The difference, though, lay in their program, which paid homage to the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I through the music of composers who had lived through and even fought in it, from France, Germany, Britain and the United States.
So what was so different about someone singing century-old music on stage to a piano accompaniment? The fact that I have to explain, and the fact that this recital was, in fact, so different — so refreshingly, marvelously different — says a lot about the iron grip still maintained by some classical music conventions, despite all the work to reanimate the song recital in the past few decades.
The debut recital is often approached as a set of hurdles: groups of songs in at least four or five languages, including at least one little-known (often American) set and at least one group of chestnuts. The point, it seems, is for the singer to get out there and expose himself or herself to the scrutiny of an audience that often remembers singers of the past doing the same music better. Brancy and Dugan, by contrast, put a lot of research into building a smart program that had a reason to touch different linguistic bases, and that was more about its subject, World War I, than about the testing of a young singer, which becomes the default narrative of so many of these maiden outings.
Giving the evening a larger theme also gave the audience a reason to want to hear unfamiliar music and get excited about it. The artists didn’t venture so very far off the beaten path, but they offered a new perspective on the music. George Butterworth’s cycle “A Shropshire Lad” opened the program (Butterworth was killed in the war); the French set featured songs by Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. (“Bleuet,” blueberry, was the slang term for French soldiers, including the one the Poulenc song of that title is addressing.)
The four songs by Carl Orff, on the other hand, were certainly rarities. The harshly angular music of “Der Gute Mensch” (the good man), its declamatory text-setting punctuated by repeated, driving chords of Tchaikovskian intensity in the piano, upheld the subtext of German aggression as contrasted with British suffering.
None of this would have worked, of course, had Brancy and Dugan not been able to perform it so consummately well. Brancy has a warm, vivid baritone with a lot of color. In the opening of the Butterworth cycle, he suffered a bit from the time-honored nervous singer’s retreat into a plummy, slightly exaggerated sound, but as the evening continued, he relaxed into a more natural delivery. By the final, American set he sang Ives’s “The Things Our Fathers Loved” with straightforward ease, giving the music a kind of luminosity, without recourse to what I might term capital-D Diction. Dugan played two sections of Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” in the French set, as a signal that he also is a formidable soloist.
How different is this approach, really? Friday night and Saturday night, the Embassy Series is presenting another musical tribute to World War I at the Embassy of Luxembourg — with tenor, piano, cabaret singers and choruses — that also sounds unusual, thoughtful and refreshing. But the goal of a recital is not originality as much as making a statement as an artist. And at this, Brancy and Dugan succeeded superbly.