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The comfortably cool auditorium at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School rang with the voices of two fine singers in a recital of art songs, opera arias, spirituals and Broadway tunes which allowed the appreciative audience to forget the afternoon heat outside. Mezzo-soprano Elsie Shuler, choral director at the high school, and her colleague, voice teacher and friend, bass-baritone James Longmire, sang quite well and showed themselves in command of the variety of music they offered. Pianist Susan Timmons ably accompanied the singers, admirably anticipating any difficulties they encountered.
Shuler is developing a beautifully warm, rich mezzo-soprano that suggests dramatic qualities. One strength is her ability to sing expressively the often-passionate texts of the romantic art songs on the program. Despite these skills, however, she often had problems sustaining vocal lines and also some musical difficulties which appeared in her frequent rush from one phrase to another, obviously surprising her accompanist.
Longmire’s bass-baritone has power, great depth, dramatic intensity when it is required, and exhibits superb vocal technique revealed in breath support, vocal color, well-shaped vocal lines, and interpretive skills. He has been well-known in the Raleigh area for years for his skills as a recitalist.
The singers’ opening numbers, chosen from the world of Romantic art songs and opera, prepared the audience for the musical skills they displayed throughout the recital. Shuler’s treatment of the passionate “Pieta Signore!” (written by F.-J. Fetis, not Stradella) was appealing in its expressiveness and showed off the beauty of her mezzo-soprano voice, but also revealed some nervousness. Her treatment of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Du bist die Ruh” were lovely to hear as she began to let the music, not the nerves, command her voice; and her singing of Guonod’s sparkling aria “Ring out, wild bells” disclosed a vocal excitement and pleasure in singing she did not always show in the earlier pieces.
Longmire’s art songs — Brahms’ “Wie Melodien zieht es mir,” “Die Meinacht,” and “Vergebliches Standchen” — were full of emotional power and color which made the texts come alive. My favorite of the three pieces was the first, with its beautiful well-shaped, arching phrases demanding much skill from the singer. Longmire’s best work in this first set was his stirring performance of the great bass-baritone aria “Il lacerato spiritu” from Verdi’s opera Simone Boccanegra, which required him to use all the power of his voice to express the great anguish and passion of the title character as he laments the loss of his palace, his crown and his honor.
The second half of this recital focused entirely on American works. Longmire’s superb bass-baritone filled the auditorium with his expressive interpretation of American songs depicting the hardships of the common man and moving spirituals focusing on the experiences of African-Americans. Cohen’s “Death of an Old Seaman,” Dunbar/Swanson’s “A Death Song,” and Langston Hughes/Swanson’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” were vivid song-pictures of the close of life for men whose lives were never easy. Longmire’s musically-intelligent interpretation of these songs and their characters was obvious in his passionate phrasing and great vocal power. His singing of two well-known spirituals, “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” and “Wade in De Water,” rang with sincerity and vivacity and a brought him a very appreciative audience response. Longmire did some of his best singing in his treatment of Stephen Sondheim’s “Everybody Says Don’t,” a vocally-challenging song from the Broadway musical Anyone Can Whistle. His only flaw in an otherwise excellent performance occurred when he and his accompanist momentarily lost musical touch with each other.
Shuler, too, sang well in her interpretation of two poems by Emily Dickinson set to music by Aaron Copland, who allowed the poet’s very original language to come alive in his equally-original settings. Shuler’s most effective effort was in the delightfully satiric “Why do they shut me out of Heaven?” in which she revealed that she understood both the nature of Dickinson’s question of those readers who do not see the worth of her poetry and the poet’s arch answer, “Did I sing too loud?” In setting this important line Copland allows the singer to soar to the top of her range, and Shuler was up to the challenge. She showed her musicianship in her performance of this piece, as well as in “The world feels dusty,” handling Copland’s often-difficult intervals and musical lines with skill.
Shuler ‘s last solo piece, Ado Annie’s humorous self-revelation in “I Can’t Say No” from Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, was in many ways her most skillful performance of the afternoon. Vocally it was very sound, and her feel for the character of Annie was quite good, causing the audience to respond to the down-home humor of the piece.
Longmire and Shuler turned to Annie Get Your Gun and the amusing “Anything You Can Do” to conclude their recital. This duet allowed the two musical friends to show how much they enjoyed singing with each other and showed their skill in handling the musical humor of one of Broadway’s most memorable numbers.