Countertenors are few and far between, and good ones are indeed a rare breed. But David Daniels, originally from Spartanburg, SC, is among the best we have heard. He came to a musically conservative and frankly skeptical audience – if the comments around us were any indication – who, if they even knew what a countertenor was, had been turned off long ago by the hooting sound of Alfred Deller and his disciples. By the end of an evening of music spanning three centuries, accompanied by veteran accompanist Martin Katz, the audience was not only enthusiastic but had altered whatever prejudices they may have come with.

Countertenors have a problem. Normally having a baritone range – Daniels is a natural tenor – they sing the overtones of their natural range (or “falsetto”) thereby operating with only half their laryngeal equipment. The need for more vocal power in the extravagant operas and cantatas of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century Italy led impresari and audiences to turn to the castrati – singers operating with none of another kind of equipment.

A tall and burly fellow, Daniels possesses a small but well nuanced voice, and he chose his program appropriately. Although covering a wide range of emotions, his selections and delivery stressed their gentler and more subtle expression. The program opened with two Mozart songs, “An Chloë” (“To Chloë”), a passionate poem to young love, and as contrast, “Abendempfindung” (“Evening Thoughts”), an elegy to love and death in late life.

The same subdued mood permeated three of the four songs to poems by Paul Verlaine composed by Gabriel Fauré, a composer who refined his craft to the subtleties of understatement. The fourth, Mandoline , is a sardonic description of a Venetian festa , the celebrants strutting around in their finery. Daniels mastered the mood switch with finesse, demonstrating an acting ability to augment his flexible voice.

Maurice Ravel’s Five Popular Greek Song s are all vignettes on different themes, also requiring from the performer very rapid mood switches. In the last one, Tout gai! , describing the lovely legs of the dancing girls in the bar (“the dishes are dancing too”), Daniels practically danced along with the song.

Daniels has made a name for himself as an outstanding performer of Handel oratorio and opera. He has received acclaim and awards for his lead role in a recording of Rinald o and has been touring the globe in the title role of various productions of Giulio Cesar e. He opened the second half of the program with two arias from Semele , a bawdy mythological opera/oratorio composed in 1744 that ran afoul of the censors and public taste and had to be withdrawn in 1752. In the second aria, “Despair Shall No More Wound Me,” Daniels mastered the tricky Handel ornamentation with breath to spare, although the rapid runs on the sound “oo” illustrate why composers of the period contrived for the most part to have their singers embellish on “ah.”

The rest of the program was American. In 2001, Theodore Morrison, director of graduate studies in Conducting at the University of Michigan, set to music five of the 36 poems in James Joyce’s collection Chamber Music . The composer claims to have arranged the five songs as a lyrical love story beginning in longing and progressing through ecstasy and the pains of separation to conclude in isolation and terror. The music is romantic, more in line with the date of the poems (1907) than with the date of composition. Daniels, who commissioned the work, again evoked the changing mood impeccably with the most subtle and sensuous vocal shadings.

The formal program ended with an arrangement by Steven Mark Kohn of four American folksongs, again demanding the whole gamut of emotions from Daniels. Kohn takes his style more from Samuel Barber than Copland, turning these familiar tunes into complex art songs.

Better than most of the encores we get at the Duke Artists Series, Daniels trotted out “Blackberry Winter” (referring to a late spring cold snap that kills the flowers of the blackberry), a substantial and too seldom heard song by Alec Wilder (who has been referred to facetiously as “The President of the Derrière-Garde”).

In addition to the revivals of Baroque opera, in which most countertenors earn their bread and butter, Daniels has brought a new sonority and great sensitivity to the standard song recital repertoire. For this concert, he obviously selected a program to match his strengths and the limitations of his range, avoiding the emotional extremes of most German Lieder.

The low point of the concert was the printed program. Printed in a spidery 8-point type, it was barely readable even to those with good eyesight. In dimmed light it was useless rendering impossible any attempt to follow the text of the poems. Considering the preponderance of gray (or bald) heads in the audience, such a program layout is counter-productive. Moreover, Duke might do well to enhance the accessibility of all its performances by producing a certain number of large print programs for people with low vision.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of John Hanks, from 1954 to 1987 Duke Music Department faculty member, who died last spring. Hanks, a singer, vocal teacher, choir director and over all music enthusiast, was a long-time member of the board of the Duke Artists Series, sponsor of this concert.