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Critics and people of the cloth have more in common than the casual observer might think, for both groups are good at telling other folks how to live their lives. That they don't invariably practice what they preach is a given, too. Few critics perform at anything like professional levels, and of course the landscape is littered with fallen ministerial types of various persuasions. I mention this because we heard a remarkable amateur singer at Meredith on August 24, a singer whose status exemplifies the best, truest meaning of that adjective, an artist--that term isn't used loosely - who clearly loves what he does and whose technique and musicianship, too, are outstanding. The vocalist is Robert E. Lee, and he's apparently been on the receiving end of a lot of ribbing about his name, but he was trained in Idaho, far from the Old Confederacy, and apparently there is no kinship with you-know-who.
Lee possesses a light baritone voice that extends easily into low-tenor territory but packs plenty of resonance in its deeper register. It is perhaps a bit uneven, but at no point during his generous recital, presented in Carswell Hall, was his production troubling to this listener. His program encompassed works in four languages, starting and ending with American songs. Five of Copland's most familiar numbers got things off to a glowing start; these and the others were splendidly supported by Meredith pianist Kent Lyman. Three Schumann songs followed; among these was the rarely-heard "Sonntags am Rhein," bracketed by "Widmung" and "Ich grolle nicht," the latter from "Dichterliebe." His Fauré group included well-known and much-loved melodies, delivered with consummate skill and immaculate diction. Ravel's Don Quichotte songs were every bit as impressive. Given the richness of Lee's singing and his interpretive skills, his excursion into the Broadway world of Camelot was refreshing; he made much of "C'est moi" and "If ever I would leave you," allowing his large audience--the place was packed--to experience these thrice-familiar songs as if for the first time. An aria from Leoncavallo's Zazá --familiar to record collectors of a certain age but otherwise unknown--and the "Toreador Song" from Carmen brought the program to its formal close. The encore was "If I were a rich man," from Fiddler on the Roof.
In every case, the singing was gripping, the nuances and emotions were palpable, the diction was clean, and the pronunciation was precise and idiomatic. He sang the entire program from memory. He introduced the groups in ways that demonstrated complete knowledge and long-term familiarity with the component parts. He was rapturously received by an audience that clearly wasn't the typical classical crowd. A lot of little children were present, and some of 'em came and went at inopportune moments. Kids played in the lobby. People applauded every number in every group, and some talked about their pleasure as the recital unfolded. (No cell phones went off, but several digital watches chimed the nine o'clock hour.)
The printed program was good enough, as far as it went. There were translations of the German numbers - credited, no less! Lee himself provided translations of the French pieces. Translations of the arias were omitted. There wasn't a scintilla of biographical information, but in every other respect, this was a class act by a singer of remarkable ability with a voice that is rare in this neck of the woods. We have bucketsful of songbirds hereabouts, but there are few male vocalists of merit. Lee is clearly among the best, and not just locally or regionally.
So who is this guy whose singing is virtually unknown, and why haven't we heard him previously? Well, he's been here for nine years, has a large family, and his "day job" brings us back to the opening paragraph. Lee moved to the Triangle from Salt Lake City. He heads educational services in the region for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and currently serves as a bishop, presiding over Cary's Second Ward. His Meredith recital seems to have been his formal concert debut here, although he participated in a performance of Elijah at his church several seasons ago. In many respects, this program was a blessing, extended to his audience. Bishop Lee clearly accepted one calling while giving up another, but in the wake of this program, it would be yet another blessing if he could find room in his schedule for additional musical engagements. When I heard that the program involved the pianist's bishop, I was indeed skeptical, and I'd never have believed it, had I not heard him with my own ears. Lee's a true artist and, in our view, a major "find." We're not kidding in the least when we say that we're inspired to pray for more - even though critics' supplications are rarely if ever heeded.