A larger audience than usual was present for the Music for a Great Space concert in Christ United Methodist Church. It featured a stellar performance by two of North Carolina’s musical native sons. Pianist Warren Jones is one of the most sought after accompanists on the international circuit. He and Marilyn Horne among others have coached the baritone soloist of the evening, the irrepressible Sidney Outlaw. One of the most heart-warming rewards of being a critic is seeing the growth of a major musician from a raw underclassman to a “finished’ (study is never ending) talent from a major conservatory. Among Outlaw’s major roles for David Holley’s University of North Carolina Greensboro Opera Theatre were Sarastro from Mozart’s Magic Flute and Falstaff from Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Outlaw received his Master of Music degree from the Juilliard School of Music in 2007. The Brevard, NC native is singing in the Young Artist Studio of the Florida Grand Opera this year.

Outlaw selected a fresh program of rarities in three languages that demonstrated the breadth of his musicianship and technique. Mozart’s works are the acid test of a singer’s exactness, there being no cover for any slip. Three lieder, “Das Veilchen,” K.476, “Abendempfindung,” K.523, and “An Chloe,” K. 524 revealed Outlaw’s fine German diction and precise intonation. Restrained body language combined with carefully applied color and dynamics to convey these sentimental love songs. His potential as a Don Giovanni, Leporello, Count or Figaro was strongly suggested by his vivid presentation of “Rivolgete a lui lo Sguardo,” K. 584. This is a fascinating alternate aria for Guglielmo in Così fan Tutte. It is chock-full of classical and mythical allusions and was replaced by the standard and less risqué aria No. 15, “Non siate ritrosi.”

It was a real treat to hear Warren Jones as a soloist for once. He chose a short four page Adagio in B minor, K. 540 that Mozart composed one evening sometime between the Prague and Vienna premieres of Don Giovanni. The composer rarely used the key of B minor and this was the only time he ever listed the key of one of his works in his “List of All My Works” (1788). Jones said it was one of the most ambiguous and beautiful of the composer’s works. With the Steinway’s lid fully raised (as it was for the entire recital), Jones played with great style and purity of tone. The main hall of the church is acoustically problematic for piano, especially in an accompanying role. Jones balanced his keyboard unusually well.

The most important novelty of Outlaw’s program was a selection of four songs by the African-American composer Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). The Erie, Pa. native won a scholarship to the National Conservatory, New York in 1892. There he met Victor Herbert and the conservatory’s director, Antonín Dvorák. Burleigh’s performances of African-American spirituals strengthened Dvorák’s belief that America had its own rich folksong repertory. Jones pointed out the idiocy of past racial and gender prejudices. In order to get his songs published, Burleigh had to work as the representative of an Italian music publisher. He was paid by having his works published…in Italy. Moreover, though Lawrence Hope is credited as the author of the poems used, it was the pen name for an English lady who, as a woman, could not get her works published! “Till I Wake” built up to an emotional intensity at the repeated line “when I wake.” There is a suggestion of Debussy in the piano prelude to “Among the Fuchsias.” Perhaps the piano’s repeated rhythms underlying “The Jungle Flower” was meant to evoke distant native drums. “Worth While” is full emotional intensity along the lines of whether it is better to have loved than not. Outlaw and Jones made the strongest possible case for these neglected works. Jones said the Burleigh Family is trying to amass all of the composer’s scores in an archive in Erie.

Outlaw and Jones gave a very moving performance of the eight songs that make up Ralph Vaughan Williams The Songs of Travel (1901-1904) made up of settings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. The keyboard part is complex and interesting. It began with the repeated “trudging” beat of the opening song, “Vagabond.” There are many hints at impressionism in such songs as “Let Beauty Awake” which opens with long arabesques in the piano. Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel much later in 1908. These songs gave ample room for Outlaw to fully reveal the range of his honey-toned voice as well as his mastery of emotional conviction. His diction was superlative as was his control of held notes and his ability to float a pp ending.   

Enthusiastic audience response was rewarded with three encores. Outlaw dedicated a real rarity, Fritz’s (Pierrot) aria “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Act II of Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt, to his mother and father. Two rousing spirituals followed. Jones got to shout train station stops in “Get on Board this Train.” At times during “A City Called Heaven,” Outlaw’s timbre in his higher range reminded me of the late great William Warfield. Much future success can be expected of this still-growing artist.

Preview: Music for a Great Space: A Homecoming for Baritone Sidney Outlaw

by William Thomas Walker

March 7, 2008, Greensboro, NC: Reviewing opera productions at our regional university music schools and conservatories has two prime rewards: a chance to see rare repertoire, and a chance to see tomorrow’s talents develop. I was a fang-less critic when I attended two superb prize-winning performances of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld at UNCG. Spectator Magazine had dropped all classical music coverage, and it was months before Classical Voice of North Carolina would be born. A standout among the talented students in David Holley’s production was a sophomore who, as the god Mercury, entered on a scooter, dressed as a FTD florist. Sidney Outlaw, a native of Brevard, NC, combined a fine sense of comic timing with a good, warm baritone voice. His personality and his stage presence fairly leapt at the audience. It has been delightful to witness his artistic growth over several seasons in such roles as Falstaff in Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Friedrich Bauer in Mark Adamo’s Little Women.

Outlaw was graduated from UNCG with a Bachelor of Music degree; he studied with Levone Tobin-Scott. He was a recipient of several music scholarships and he won an impressive array of awards such as first place in the National Association of Teachers of Singing’s state and regional competitions for four consecutive years. He has received his Master of Music degree from the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with W. Stephen Smith. In February 2006, Outlaw was named the New England regional first-place winner and a national semi-finalist for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He has continued to rack up an impressive resume that includes his Avery Fisher Hall debut in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in May 2007. He will make his Carnegie Hall debut in Handel’s Messiah in the near future.

At 7:30 p.m. on March 7, Outlaw’s many Triad fans will get to hear how his artistry has matured when he gives an intriguing vocal recital in Christ United Methodist Church; it is part of the Music for a Great Space series. He will be accompanied by another North Carolina native, pianist Warren Jones, one of the most sought after musicians nationwide.

The four Mozart songs that open the program (K.476, K.523, K.540, and K.584) will serve to display Outlaw’s mastery of classical style and purity of vocal technique. His ability to convey a complex cycle will be shown over the course of the seldom-heard Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which will conclude the recital.

Outlaw’s middle selection of four songs ought to fascinate anyone interested in the development of American Music. In 1892, Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) won a scholarship to the National Conservatory in New York, where he met Victor Herbert and the conservatory’s director, Antonín Dvorák. Willie Strong’s article in New Grove Music Online II says that it was performances by Burleigh, one of the first important African-American composers born after the Civil War, that “strengthened Dvorák’s conviction that America possessed a rich folksong repertory.” Strong notes that Burleigh’s “arrangements of African American folksongs set the standard for several generations of composers.” He used sparse piano accompaniment to add subtle counterpoint to the melodic lines of the majority of his 265 compositions. Most are solo settings of spirituals. Outlaw’s selection of Burleigh’s songs will help flesh out an important footnote to the evolution of American Music.

For more information, see http://www.musicforagreatspace.org/id6.html.