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Risa Poniros, a remarkable soprano and Raleigh native whose presence has since 1995 enriched Meredith College’s vocal offerings and the greater Triangle’s operatic scene for many seasons, bade farewell to the school with a Sunday afternoon recital that involved many of her life-long friends and centered, as well, on music that has made her the splendid artist she is today.
She’s Greek, in case there was any doubt, and she was raised in the capital city’s strong Greek Orthodox community, but her theology is as all-encompassing as her musical culture, and she’s thus enriched the vocal programs of many faiths – perhaps she was just covering all the bases. Some of this ecumenical flavor was apparent in the program, too.
And it was her birthday.
She began with Richard Hageman’s “Animal Crackers” (1922), a delightful childhood romp, and true to form there was a large bowl of animal crackers at the post-concert reception. She introduced this number and others along the way, but a narrator – Brett Webb Mitchell – was also on hand to help shape the afternoon’s somewhat biographical program, which was titled “Celebrate Life! … A Woman’s Journey Told through Musical Genres.” Her accompanist for the opening work and in other large swaths was Meredith colleague Karen Allred, whose pianism dazzled where it really matters and took a back-seat in the more subdued pieces. And speaking of seats, in the front three or four rows of Jones Chapel were members of Poniros’ extensive and extended family, one result of which that on this occasion the claque was front and center from start to finish!
A medley from Bob Merrill’s Carnival, the 1961 musical in which she’d taken a major role in high school (Raleigh’s Needham B. Broughton), followed, and then long-time Meredith collaborator, accompanist, and (in this case) arranger Sophia Johnson joined Poniros and guitarist Ed Stephenson for a medley of pop tunes that clearly resonated deep within the singer: “Vincent” (Don McLean’s tribute to Van Gogh), “Autograph” (John Denver), and “Without a Song” (Vincent Youmans). For this long-time fan and listener, the repertoire was new – and quite exceptionally realized. (The singer’s brother George, of Roast Grill fame, was to have joined in this medley as a bass guitarist, but alas arthritis precluded his participation.)
There was more of the same as the singer turned to John Prine’s “Hello in There,” with Stephenson and cellist (and conductor) Jim Waddelow providing the smooth support. It’s a tune that Joan Baez or Judy Collins or even Nana Mouskouri (to cite another great Greek artist) might have handled brilliantly – but, one imagines, no more brilliantly than on this occasion.
All that was under the subhead “A Musical Quest.” Allred rejoined the proceedings for “Greek Culture and Church Families,” which encompassed three of Ravel’s five Popular Greek Songs (or Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, to give the set its formal title). These were sung in Greek (as they rarely are), and so wonderfully that one longed to have heard the others. Two spirituals – “Mary Had a Baby” and “Ride on, King Jesus!” – brought this group to a close in, successively, heart-felt and rousing style.
One will begin to sense the astonishing range of styles and techniques all these works demanded – Poniros met all challenges, and in fact it would not have been possible to sit through this without an ever-increasing sense of awe at her accomplishments.
“A New Musical Direction Revealed” brought the afternoon to opera, an art form the singer candidly admitted she hadn’t much cared for as a young person. Her rendition of Mimi’s Act I aria from Puccini’s La Bohème was a highlight artistically and because it was delivered in impeccable, flawlessly projected English – a rarity, for reasons never clear to this listener, among American singers. She was almost as impressive in “Somehow I Never Could Believe,” from Weill’s Street Scene (accompanied by Waddelow), the number serving as a concurrent reminiscence of an “Opera in the Ozarks” summer the two shared in 1995.
The concluding group, “Things to Come…,” hinted at where the artist might now go – beyond the mere physical location that is Mount Olive College, where she will head the vocal program. The powerful “To This We’ve Come” (also known as the “Papers” aria), from Menotti’s The Consul, disclosed a powerful and dramatic aspect of Poniros’ singing that was truly arresting. This was then perfectly balanced by two gorgeous art songs that permitted yet more singing straight from the artist’s heart. The final work, a dedication of sorts, worked into the printed program, was revealed to be “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel, dedicated to family and friends. Can there have been any dry eyes?
Surely, our loss, locally, is Mount Olive College’s gain, but there’s consolation in the fact that her family remains here, so surely she’ll be back from time to time – for a hotdog, if nothing else.
Bon voyage, Kind and Generous Singer!