SoliClassica, Asheville’s classical music store, was host for an enchanting concert of art songs and classical piano solos at Pack Place’s Diana Wortham Theatre. Veteran musicians Vinson Cole, tenor and George Darden, piano, both former Metropolitan Opera Artists, have traveled the globe together making music for over thirty years. Now Darden has settled in nearby Bat Cave, and plans to retire from the concert stage this year, while Cole still teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and the New England Conservatory. When they perform together, one can’t fail to notice their close personal rapport, consummate professional skills, and, above all, their infectious joy in bringing music to life.

The program consisted of music from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a large section devoted to the music of Chopin in this, the 200th anniversary of his birth. Cole was equally at home singing in five languages. Two bel canto art songs by Bellini, “Torna, vezzosa fillide” and “La recordanza” alerted us at once to the artistry of the two men. Cole’s voice is simply lovely — silvery clear, and still powerful in his highest range. He plumbs the inner, emotional life of each song and renders each in dramatically convincing ways. Song refrains, such as “Where is my Phyllis” in the first song, were never sung the same way twice in keeping with the narrative. 

The trio of songs by Richard Strauss — “Zueignung,” Op. 10/1,” Morgen,” Op. 27/4, and “Cäcilie,” Op. 27/2 — were sung with an impressive interpretive flair and meticulous attention to musical detail. The French set consisted of two love songs by Duparc (“Soupir” and “Phydilé”) and ended with the wrenching aria “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Act III of Massenet’s Werther in which the title character foresees his own death. The final vocal set consisted of three exotic songs by Cuban-Spanish composer Joaquin Nin — “Tonada de Valdovinos,” “Cantar,” and “Jota Tortosina” — the latter two evocative of specific Spanish locales, ending with two spirituals “His Name So Sweet” and “’Roun’ About de Mountain.”

Darden is a fine pianist. As a collaborator, he has an acute sense of timing and a keen ear for balance. One could only wish that he had had a full size grand piano on which to perform, as the theatre’s Model B Hamburg Steinway simply did not do his playing justice, sounding frequently underpowered and lacking the resonance of a larger instrument.  His Chopin set consisted of three nocturnes (Op. 9/2, KKIVa, No. 16, Op. 32/1) and three mazurkas (Op. 67/4, Op. 67/3, Op. 68/4 [this last his final composition]), framed by two polonaises (KKIIa, No. 1, Op. 40/1), the first of which was the composer’s first published composition at the age of 7.

Darden’s second set included the exquisitely rendered “La fille au cheveux de lin” and “Clair de lune” by Debussy, Cyril Scott’s “Lotusland” which had many Debussian exotic flourishes and scalar structures, and Darden’s own transcription of “Melodya,” Op. 21/9, arranged from the 12 songs by Rachmaninoff. He concluded his solo set with his sister’s favorite piece, the Spanish Dance No. 5 by Granados.

It was gratifying to see such a good turnout for this concert, and so many families with children. More concerts for the community sponsored by SoliClassica are in the works — see our calendar for details.