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For the first concert of the season, presented on September 24 in the sanctuary of Greensboro's Christ United Methodist Church, Music for a Great Space welcomed the return of High Point native Anthony Dean Griffey, an internationally acclaimed tenor. He has been most closely identified with three operatic roles: Lennie, in Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men; the title role in Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes; and Mitch, in André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. As mezzo-soprano Susan Graham did at her Duke recital last season, Griffey thanked the audience for attending and expressed his gratitude for the increasingly rare opportunity to present a vocal recital. The format is in decline nationally.
Griffey's accompanist was Warren Jones, who has appeared with many artists, vocal and instrumental, throughout the Piedmont and beyond. His always-consummate artistry was further enhanced by the piano used for the concert, a 1887 Steinway - another miracle from the workshop of Greensboro's noted piano restorer, John Foy. In addition, members of the Carolina String Quartet, whose members are principals of the GSO - Concertmaster John Fadial, Assistant Concertmaster Wendy Rawls, violist Scott Rawls, and cellist Beth Vanderborgh - joined for some choice and rare fare.
The centerpiece of Griffey's recital was a deeply moving rendition of On Wenlock Edge, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It consists of six poems from Housman's A Shropshire Lad, scored for tenor, piano, and string quartet. The instrumental ensemble blended immaculately, creating small tone poems that either acted as preludes or underscored the moods of the songs. What a joy it was to hear these done by a tenor at the height of his powers! Griffey's diction was superb, and his glowing, lyric voice was a delight throughout its range. There was never any hint of strain, the voice was solidly supported, and there was always a sense that more was held in reserve. He made full and expressive use of dynamics, pauses, timbre, and inflection along with apt facial expressions to put across the drama of the songs. Ensemble between the singer and the instrumentalists was tight, and the darker aspects of the work were fully communicated.
The Three Songs for Viola and Piano by Frank Bridge that opened the concert are real discoveries that deserve more frequent exposure. The texts are "Far, far from each other," by Matthew Arnold, "Where is it that our soul doth go?," by Kate Freiligath Kroeker, and "Music, when soft voices die," by Shelley. Rawls' sonorous viola was plumbed from its lowest range up as it sometimes soloed and more often blended with Jones' contributions on the mellow, restored Steinway. Griffey's full and resonant tenor voice was beautifully controlled.
The balance of the program was given over to a broad survey of some of the finest American art songs. Too seldom are songs by the innovative Charles Tomlinson Griffes done, so his Three Poems by Fiona MacLeod, Op. 11, were a treat. Jones' keyboard seemed bell-like in the spare opening of "The Lament of Ian the Proud" but soared in the last line, "...the wind crying to me." Dark, low notes underlined the barely-contained passion of "Thy Dark Eyes to Mine." A mysterious treble figure over bass notes helped conjure the ghost of the dead in "The Rose of the Night." Griffey limned this setting to hair-raising perfection.
Samuel Barber's songs are always welcome, and his Three Songs, Op. 10, are readily accessible. The wrath of the third song," I hear an Army," was almost too visceral. If a song could be called a signature, then surely "Simple Gifts" is Aaron Copland's. Its "true simplicity" was followed by the apt political references of "The Dodger" and onomatopoeia-like catalog of "I Bought Me a Cat." Jones and Griffey delivered these with wit and deceptive ease. Selections from Old American Songs never fail to please.
W.C. Fields was right about children and animals. Griffey held his very young nephew in his arms as he sang the encore, "This Little Light of Mine," but the kid was more excited by familiar faces that caught his eye than playing the role of rapt listener.
This well-planned and richly-satisfying selection of songs was a special preview of most of the program that Griffey and Jones will perform in Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall in October. The sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church can be too reverberant for pianos, but the 19th-century Steinway seemed to escape this effect. It was a splendid idea to showcase Jones' full artistic scope in a solo, "Sposalizio" (1838), from Franz Liszt's Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année: Italie. The depth of musicianship of accompanists is too little appreciated by the general public.