According to Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go home again. While that may be true on many levels, you can return to the old neighborhood and show off when you have made it big…, as in New York. That was the focus of an EMF recital on July 12 in Dana Auditorium, when two talented graduates of High Point public schools presented a wide-ranging recital. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey first came to national attention when he was selected by composer André Previn to portray Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire. A broadcast by public television and CD and DVD recordings brought a flurry of coverage and opportunities. He has since sung at the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera, and the Glyndebourne Festival. Last summer he debuted at the Santa Fe Opera in the title role of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Pianist James Giles is chair of the EMF’s piano department and is on the faculty at Northwestern University. He has toured nationally and internationally. He studied with Byron Janis at the Manhattan School of Music and Jerome Lowenthal at the Juilliard School. The high standards of his concerto performances and recitals at the EMF have been rewarded with a large loyal following.

Griffey’s lyric tenor voice is robustly projected. It is seamlessly supported from a near-baritone lower range to bright and perfectly-focused highs. He has a pleasing timbre and very clear diction in all three of the languages used in the July 10 recital – English, German, and French. Giles had the Steinway concert grand piano angled so that the keyboard was readily visible to the audience. The lid was fully up but he graduated the sound so  he never once covered Griffey’s powerful voice. Giles showed a mastery of several styles over the course of the program, from delicate evocation of a harpsichord or lute in the Dowland to full Romantic texture in Brahms and Griffes to refined color painting in Ravel to modern eclecticism in Rorem and Previn.

Three songs by John Dowland showed Griffey’s ability to enunciate a dense and tricky text and to convey the emotional mood of a piece by subtle gestures, facial expression, and tone. “Come Again, Sweet Love” is the over-heated refrain of a love-sick swain. It burned with feverish desire. “What if I never speed?” is not about the sixteenth century equivalent of NASCAR but rather the sad state of too long out-living a deceased love.
An old and blind person reflects upon a long lost love. Most complex musically and textually was “Fine Knacks for Ladies.” This might well have been the song of a hawker of wares at a fair. The line “though all my wares be trash, my heart is true” brought laughter.

Three songs by Brahms gave meatier fare for Giles to dig into, and he wove a full texture to accompany the lush Romantic verses. A simple melodic line was apt for the folk-like text of “Sonntag” (“Sunday”), Op. 47/3. “Von ewiger Liebe” (“Of Everlasting Love”), Op.43/1, is one of the composer’s most famous songs; it may reflect his earlier attachment to Agathe von Siebold. Griffey fully conveyed the enthusiasm of a lover bursting with similes in “Meine Liebe ist grün,” Op. 63/5.

Ravel’s Cinq Melodies Populaires Grecques is among the composer’s most popular song cycles. The set gave both artists plenty of scope to show off their refined sense of color and their care for phrasing.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ Op. 11 setting of three poems by William Sharp, writing under the pen-name of Fiona MacLeod, brought an air of hot-house Victorianism. “The Lament of Ian the Proud” reflects upon mortality from the point of view of an old blind person. The “crying of the wind” was a vivid image. Griffey’s lower and middle ranges were exploited in “Thy Dark Eyes to Mine,” the most lyrical of the set. “The Rose of the Night” has the most memorable text and the most intricate part for piano, beginning with keyboard introduction; it ended with Griffey soaring to a perfectly centered high note.

Ned Rorem composed his three-movement piano work Recalling for Giles, who premiered it 2004. After the deceptively harsh chords of the simple and spare opening, the first movement, “Remembering Lake Michigan,” gave the pianist a prodigious workout. Starting with the lowest keys of the piano, it demands that both hands play independently as fast as possible. The gently lyrical second movement, “The Wind Remains (Remembering Paul Bowles)” is based on a song from a zarzuela of the same title by Bowles. The concluding “Remembering Tomorrow” opens with crazy dissonant notes. In comments on the composer and the work, Giles had recalled Rorem’s disdain for serialism and his calling its acolytes “serial killers.” These wild notes were Rorem’s shot at that dry academic school of composition. Thereafter it was by turns playful and technically demanding. Giles’ recording of this fascinating piece is scheduled to appear on a Koch CD recording.

André Previn composed his Four Songs for Griffey’s Carnegie Hall debut. “Is It for Now” deals with reality and illusions in love. The haunting imagery of “To Write One Song” involves a visit to a cemetery with its “dead headstones.” “Ad Infinitum” deals with the rejection of flowers and love. The last song, “The Revelation,” calls for fast singing, and Griffey ended it with the most beautiful hushed pp of the evening.

Samuel Barber’s pleasing Three Songs, Op 10, ended the formal program.

A prolonged and hearty standing ovation was rewarded with two encores. Aaron Copland’s “Simple Gifts” was delivered with well-judged economy of expression. Before singing the two brief selections by Ned Rorem, a deeply moved Griffey asked his junior high school advisor, Dot Walker, to stand and be honored for helping a “painfully shy and overweight boy find himself.” Rorem’s “Early in the Morning” and “I am Rose” ended a delightful recital. The latter had the least confusing lines by Gertrude Stein that I can recall.