Friday, April 8, 2016

Butler ArtsFest launches with a concert featuring phenomenal bel canto tenor from Anderson

Butler ArtsFest, now in its fourth year, has been scrupulous about highlighting local arts talent while simultaneously lifting up the resources available at its host, Butler University.

Lawrence Brownlee sang arias by Donizetti, Rossini, and Bizet.
The launch of the 2016 festival Thursday night took this emphasis to a new level, with a guest star from the international stage who also has a strong Central Indiana background: tenor Lawrence Brownlee, an alumnus of Anderson University.

He lent star power to a concert focusing on the Butler Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Auldon Clark, at the Schrott Center for the Arts. From the first notes of Brownlee's first aria — Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" — it was clear we were hearing exceptional singing. His reputation in the bel canto repertoire has been solidly lustrous for about a decade, so anticipation ran high. It was not disappointed.

Una furtiva lagrima is perhaps the most familiar item for tenors in Brownlee's specialty, hallowed in the public ear from recording's early days by Enrico Caruso's version. It was striking how immediately Brownlee's voice suited the hall. He used it with exquisite control, allowing the melody's lyricism to bloom without forcing. His mellifluous tenor was evenly produced from top to bottom. The full, rounded phrases were invariably well-knit, one with the other.

Something more strenuous came to the fore with the complex Terra amica from Rossini's "Zelmira," which in performance opens up opportunities to show the tenor's skill in ornamentation. Brownlee's decorative instincts seemed sound and quite tasteful. The voice moved easily to keep the focus and momentum of the melodic line intact.

His return in the second half dialed back the strenuous demands met in Terra amica, until he was called back for an encore after the orchestra's performance of Ravel's "La Valse." There he ascended the heights of virtuosity with the formidable Ah mes amis from Donizetti's "Fille du Regiment," with its repeated high C's, always exciting to hear and difficult to bring off without barking. And Brownlee heroically avoided such barking, earning another standing ovation.

The scheduled part of the second half featured Brownlee in Je crois encore from "The Pearl-Fishers" by Bizet and Spirto gentil from "La Favorita," another Donizetti gem. Both were dispatched in masterly fashion, with fine support from the orchestra.

Without Brownlee, the orchestra's part of the program ran a vast gamut. The aforementioned "La Valse," introduced by Clark from the stage unambiguously as a response to the destruction of Old Europe by World War I, was a display of the student orchestra at the peak of alertness, aggressiveness and cohesion.

True, the performance projected an air of being a carefully constructed mosaic; all the little bits stood out, and were for the most part firmly in place. The whole thing hung together mainly through the gathering of youthful energy toward a common goal, whipped into ferocious reality by Clark's fervor on the podium.

The rest of the program underlined the second part of the festival's 2016 theme, "Time and Timeless."
Music, a time-bound art, has difficulty suggesting timelessness, but fairly successful attempts have been made by the three American composers included in the concert.

First we heard Alan Hovhaness' "Mountains and Rivers Without End," for 13 precisely distributed wind and brass players plus harp (superbly performed by a professional, Wendy Muston). A lengthy display of the incomprehensible vastness of the natural phenomena of its title, it worked alternatively on large and small scales. In the latter category, there were admirable low-key episodes focusing on two instruments each: clarinet and tubular bells in one, glockenspiel and trumpet in another. These moments were tucked in among representations of nature's infinity projected by trumpets, trombones and percussion, with a woodwind trio in the middle painting in miniature.

The timeless feeling of a big city at rest through the night is captured in Aaron Copland's "Quiet City." In this performance, solo trumpet and solo English horn, placed against string orchestra, were capably played by Wesley Sexton and Mallory Bacon, respectively. The BSO's strings were at their best here.

Reasserting timelessness' large scale was the metaphysical perspective of Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question." The universal scale was underlined by the positioning of solo trumpets around the hall, taking turns articulating the question. The reiterated question — whose five notes I choose to hear as "What does it all mean?" — was played at different dynamic levels each time, perhaps indicating the variety of man's nagging insistence on getting satisfactory replies from a puzzling cosmos. The piece invariably is thought-provoking, and was particularly so in the context of this stimulating festival's ambitious reach.