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Reviewers go to concerts all the time; I've been to concerts in Fletcher Recital Hall many times. The feeling, the happy excitement in the air before the John Holiday concert was extremely unusual. His masterclass the previous day must have had an amazing effect on the attendees. Fletcher was full – fuller than usual even for an event where attendance was required.
Holiday is first and foremost a brilliant countertenor; he also radiates charismatic love and goodwill from the stage. These two qualities were in equal prominence in this performance.
The test piece for any countertenor is of course Serse's opening recitative and aria to his beloved... tree: "Frondi tenere e belle/Ombra mai fui." Holiday opened with this, nailed it, and went on to further classic pieces, Debussy's "Romance," Poulenc's Hôtel," and three pieces by Reynaldo Hahn: "Si mes vers avaient des ailes," "Offrande," and "À Chloris" (reminiscent of the Air in Bach's Third Orchestral Suite). From the beginning Handel recitative, Holiday sang with a careful and deliberate control of vibrato. His voice was powerful even in his highest register, completely suited to the opera house and slightly too big for Fletcher Hall. His singing was dramatic without being gushy or extreme; even his breathing was part of the drama.
Three Dream Portraits, by Margaret Bonds, was linked with a spiritual that Holiday described as a favorite of his mother, "I'm Gonter Tell God All O' My Troubles." All these were rich with the complicated unwritten melisma of the spiritual. Holiday moved effortlessly from the syllabic singing of Handel to the complicated warbling of the best spiritualists.
The centerpiece of the afternoon was Benjamin Britten's Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac. Holiday sang this with ECU tenor Daniel Shirley. They began standing back to back; a piano introduction gave them their cue and they entered precisely together. The timbre of their voices complimented each other perfectly, Holiday in a low range for a countertenor and Shirley in his usual tenor. They sang with perfect rapport as they changed their positions relative to each other, from back to back to facing each other and returning to back to back. At the end, when they were back to back again and unaccompanied, they entered together again with great precision.
Theodore Morrison's chamber music is set to the poetry of James Joyce and was yet another opportunity for Holiday to use his beautiful voice.
To close, Holiday turned to two jazz pieces, accompanying himself at the piano: Karl Suessdorf's "Moonlight in Vermont" and Bart Howard's "Fly Me to The Moon," a signature piece of Holiday's. His talent at jazz is as complete as his talent with Baroque, 19th century Romantic, and 20th century music.
In addition to the collaboration with Shirley, Holiday was accompanied flawlessly by Eric Stellrecht, whose restraint at the keyboard of the Fletcher grand was commendable.
Holiday's repeated gentle thank-you reponses to the audience for coming out to hear him highlighted his incredible charisma. Several times he spoke with great encouragement to his young audience. Performance at major U.S. opera houses and receiving awards such as "Newcomer of the Year" from the German magazine Opernwelt have not in any way diminished his humility and fondness for the ECU students, who returned that fondness.
Holiday received a very enthusiastic, roaring, cheering standing ovation after "Fly Me to the Moon," and offered as another encore "This Little Light of Mine," with powerful sing-along, and reaped a second standing ovation.