Davóne Tines was a freshman at Fauquier High School in Warrenton, Va., when his grandfather, a retired Navy captain and choir director, was goofing around with him, exaggerating opera-like syllables. Tines sang back in operatic style, and his granddad said, as Tines remembers it, “Well, I think you have a voice.”
That he does. His range stretches from low D to high E flat, more than three octaves. He’s called a bass-baritone and courted heavily by opera and music-theater companies here and overseas, but Tines, 34, says he’s neither bass nor baritone. He’s a bass cantante, a bass with a high upper extension, as in falsetto, balanced by a booming lower register. He defies categorization, even when it comes to his voice.
”It’s a broader conception of how to think about voice,” Tines said via phone in late July from Stamford, Vt., where he was building an interdisciplinary piece with the American Modern Opera Company peppered with Sam Cooke’s and Bach’s music. “It’s part of my saying who and what I am.”
Gloria Chien, who hired Tines with co-artistic director/husband Soovin Kim for Portland’s 2021 summer Chamber Music Northwest Festival, was moved by his voice and disintegrated into tears when she heard him sing “Give Me Jesus.”
“We were all overwhelmed by the power of his voice … it’s visceral, it’s undeniable. But what he does with the high range of his voice is really remarkable … he is so comfortable up there, and he can do things that I’ve never heard before.”
Besides, Chien said, his reimagined Mass, titled “Recital #1: Mass,” parts of which he performed at the CMNW festival, was an illuminating addition to the programming, “especially during this time when we were all learning about each others’ voices, differences, ideas.”
She reached out to him via his Web site. “Once in a while we’ll do that with artists who we really want to work with but have never met before.”
After working with him this summer, Chien added, “he delivers his message in the most powerful way.”
His own person
Tines, with a Masters degree in vocal performance from Juilliard School of Music preceded by a Harvard University Bachelors degree in sociology, is intent on saying who he is, on choosing the music he sings, and on being the political person he aspires to be, as a gay, black man, as he often refers to himself. He prefers a “more flexible way of looking at things that I connect to or that fit me the best.”
On Aug. 31, he will premiere his 75-minute “Recital #1: Mass” at Ravinia in north Chicago’s Highland Park. His much-talked about Mass was broadcast virtually through Vocal Arts DC earlier this year and filmed at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City after being canceled a few times. Tines performed excerpts at the Chamber Music Northwest Festival this summer, but Ravinia’s will mark the first full live performance.
“The Mass” performance means that only Tines and pianist Adam Nielsen, partners in previous virtual Mass concerts, will be on stage for an hour and 15 minutes, and if Tines is true to his edgy style, he’ll wear a fashion-forward dark suit, no socks, and probably a small gold cross around his neck. Singing onstage for 75 minutes does not daunt him. He’s used to it.
In the 2015 piece by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, “Only the Sound Remains,” he was on stage for two hours with a countertenor, and Tines said he sang “75 percent of the time.” The opera premiered in 2016 at the Dutch National Opera, and it was directed by the influential opera- and theater-shaper Peter Sellars, who Tines acknowledges “discovered” him earlier at Juilliard.
The performance marked the beginning of the tsunami of international recognition for the opera singer. He has gone on to create and co-create his own pieces, including 2018’s “The Black Clown” based on a Langston Hughes’ poem; “Vigil,” dedicated to Breonna Taylor’s memory with Louisville Orchestra’s Teddy Abrams in October, 2020; and this Mass, among others.
To further bolster his onstage confidence in pulling off long pieces, he sang the part of an escaped slave, which included a “huge aria,” as he called it, that unspooled for 7 minutes and 30 seconds in Matthew Aucoin’s 2015 “Crossing” about Walt Whitman’s fictionalized Civil War experiences.
“I’ve gotten used to sustaining my energy. It is like taking one intense deep breath.”
The Mass, Tines said, was his work in progress for four years. It is based on the Catholic Mass though it goes further: It is an exploration of various religious traditions and motifs — African-American, Jewish, Greek Orthodox and European — shaped primarily by contemporary and early music. It features new works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, one of Tines’ favorites for what he calls “her open-ended approach” to music, and familiar spirituals re-arranged by Tyshawn Sorely. A reconfigured “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” finds a place in this Mass, as does music of J.S. Bach. One section, the “Credo,” requires Tines to hit and hold one note for 15 seconds.
“I think because of his eclectic background and the different traditions from gospel, Renaissance choir, classical singing, and contemporary music—his voice is so versatile—he can transition from one to the other so seamlessly,” said Chien, who accompanied him on the piano for CMNW July’s Mass performance.
“I love playing with singers,” she added. “They breathe, they speak, they tell stories. I love just following their lines and letting them tell the story. We played through most rehearsals without any discussion. He sang each time differently with lots of freedom and I just let him be the storyteller.”
Choir, second nature
Tines is comfortable with liturgical music. He grew up singing in First Providence Baptist church choir in Orlean, Va., about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C., as did his entire family. “It was required,” said Tines, who was named Davóne for a bridge that his mother crossed one day. “She thought it was a unique and beautiful name,” he said, and she is “very particular” about the accent being in the right place and aiming in the correct direction.
Music was everywhere in his family. His grandfather conducted three choirs, his brother played the cello, his mother sang, and for years, Tines played violin, though he gave it up a few years ago. His music, church and home life were consistently supportive, and allowed him freedom to roam with his creative ideas, he said. No one forced him to play the violin. “I saw someone playing it PBS when I was a kid and wanted to try.”
In describing his Mass in the program notes for his CMNW performance this July, he writes:
“Singing works like Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ followed by Lauryn Hill’s arrangement of ‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee’ is a reflection of my actual lived experience with liturgical music. It is comprised of all these things: early music, Bach, contemporary gospel, and also new music. When you put these seemingly different things together, and acknowledge the connections between them, you have to acknowledge that there’s something shared among these composers and among all people. This recital is an opportunity for me to marry all those flavors together and have that conversation in front of people.”
And in the end, he wrote, “Present the darkness, and show the change into the light. That’s the entire recital right there.”
A belief in possibility
Mark Steinberg, a founding member and violinist in the 30-year-old Brentano String Quartet, has performed with Tines a couple of times. They joined in “Amazing Grace” at the Ojai Music Festival in 2017, and this summer at CMNW, performing Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach.”
Steinberg is impressed with Tines’ confidence and creativity. “I find Davóne an immensely confident performer, but I believe that means he has utter trust in the expression of the moment, in his instincts and in his responses. … He, in fact, displays utter fealty to exploration and active creativity, including reconsidering his own initial ideas, as we all should. His confidence is a belief in possibility, and, far from being challenging, it is inviting and inspiring.”
And Tines’ powerful voice is a gift, but one that he has worked at to develop and cultivate, like any great artist, Steinberg said. “Davóne is a master at adapting his voice to the expression of the moment with great specificity; that is where his most important power lies, in teasing out the meaning of a passage and illuminating it. Yes, he is a remarkable singer. We need him most particularly because he knows why it is wonderful to be a great singer—so that he can use that to be a great artist and communicator, which he is, and to speak of truth and beauty.”
CMNW’s Chien speaks to the “deep thought and purpose” that Tines puts behind his message by way of his commanding voice and charismatic style. “What I love most about Davóne is, behind his work, he wants to open conversations, break barriers, invite people in. That’s his message, and he is doing it brilliantly with his gift. When he sings, people listen. When he speaks, people let their guards down. His mission is to connect people and to invite more conversations, and I think he is doing just that.”
This story was first published by Classical Voice North America.
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