vijay iyer

Friends of Chamber Music brings the Takacs Quartet to Portland Monday and Tuesday. Photo credit: Ellen Appel.

“The Schumann songs are a bit gloomy — well, they’re very gloomy! — but I wanted to do that. When you think of these 19th-century composers, a lot of them dealt with depression, and some of their best work came out of depressing periods. It’s just amazing stuff. So I went there with the Schumann.”

Singer Eric Owens, in San Francisco Classical Voice.

I realize the days are nearing their shortest of the year — but did vocal recitalist Eric Owens have to remind us of that fact by bringing Oregon one of the darkest song programs in recent memory? For the morose first half of his Friends of Chamber Music recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last week, the powerful bass baritone, ably accompanied by last- minute replacement pianist Jay Rozendaal from Seattle Opera and Western Washington University, chose somber repertoire  — as dark and heavy as a German winter beer — by Schubert, the above mentioned Schumann and Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. Owens’ glowering voice captured the desolate, angst-ridden emotional landscape of settings of poems by Goethe and others as clearly and effectively as he’s done in his famous opera roles.

So effectively, in fact, that I wasn’t sure how many listeners would return for the second set, but those who managed to avoid suicide at intermission returned to a gradually lightening songscape of French repertoire, especially after the three Henri Duparc songs gave way to Maurice Ravel’s evocative Don Quixote music, whose closing “Drinking Song” finally drew some much needed laughter. You know it’s a bleak night when Wagner (the rousing Two Grenadiers) lightens the mood.

I have to admit that I’d hoped for some of the contemporary repertoire that Owens has earned plaudits for, but as he told SFCV, “I’m a person who sings a lot of new music, so I wanted to make an effort to sing 19th- and early-20th-century music, and to represent the two languages that are most associated with recital — that’s German and French,” both with the accent on despair.

Fortunately, Owens’ two encores (which the enthusiastic audience demanded — obviously not all of them were as bummed out as I was) finally let the light in. Owens called Henry Purcell’s tender “Music for a While” particularly close to his heart, and it sure sounded that way. And his lovingly rendered closing spiritual — “my answer to the Schumann set,” he said — “Shall We Gather at the River” washed the gloom away.

Continues…

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