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The influential publication Musical America recently named bass-baritone Davóne Tines its vocal artist of the year. Local listeners had two chances to learn why on November 5. Within the span of six hours, Tines debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a self-devised program that put classical music in dialogue with ongoing conversations on race and equity in the United States, then crossed the Kimmel Center plaza to appear with the Dover Quartet in a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) recital. The results were fascinating, thought-provoking, and occasionally frustrating.
Tines premiered Sermon, a collection of three songs interspersed with spoken texts, on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s digital platform in May of this year. The project was born from an invitation by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to sing John Adams’s setting of the Walt Whitman poem The Wound-Dresser. In return, the artist felt it more appropriate to create a program that speaks to the current moment in time, with an emphasis on raising consciousness of the Black experience in the United States for the symphonic audience, which remains predominantly white.
Thoughtful and demanding
Poems and speeches by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou are augmented by Tines’s own words. They often prove deeply moving. I was struck especially by a recitation of Hughes’s short and soulful “Hope,” which preceded a song written by Tines and Dutch composer Igee Dieudonné dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor. Called “Vigil” and heard in an arrangement by Matthew Aucoin, the piece held space in the rarefied concert hall for a young Black woman killed by police officers' violence and negligence, and it spoke to the bone-deep sadness of how predictable and common such deaths remain.
Tines performed “Vigil” with a raw intensity that suited the material. Elsewhere, he was on less sure vocal footing. The Handelian melisma of John Adams’s “Shake the Heavens” (from the oratorio El Niño) tested his limits, and his middleweight sound was occasionally swamped by Nézet-Séguin’s swelling orchestra. He also lacked the rock-solid low notes needed for “You Want the Truth, but You Don’t Want to Know,” a stirring aria from Anthony Davis’s masterpiece X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. (Too long neglected, this 1986 opera has come back into focus recently, with the Metropolitan Opera planning a belated premiere in 2023.) Nézet-Séguin drew out the dissonant tones of Davis’s music with unflinching clarity.
This miniature recital, thoughtful and demanding, is exactly the kind of canon-expanding work that needs to be done in the classical arena. Even when certain ideas or stylistic choices didn’t entirely coalesce, I came away with admiration for Tines to put such a raw reflection in front of a public that needs to hear it.
Nézet-Séguin bookended Tines’s performance with two Beethoven symphonies, continuing to make up for time lost by the cancellation of the composer’s 250th anniversary season. If Nézet-Séguin’s reading of Symphony No. 8 in F Major lacked much in the way of personal insight, it was a superbly calibrated performance, with precise playing from each section of the large ensemble and thrilling tuttis. He drew a strong comparison between Symphony No. 2 in D Major—which often sounds like apprentice music—and the more celebrated Symphony No. 3.
Barber, Shaw, and Brahms
At PCMS, Tines bridged the gap between traditionalism and contemporary artistry. The program opened with Samuel Barber’s setting of Dover Beach, a touchtone for lower-voiced male singers. Tines’s vocal tessitura sits on the higher end of the staff, which suits this lament, and he drew out the bitter irony in Matthew Arnold’s text. The Dover Quartet evoked piquantly the English countryside landscape, with violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt particularly haunting in the work’s postlude.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw crafted By and By, a setting of Appalachian folk ballads, for herself to perform. Tines is, to date, the only other artist to interpret the piece. In this style, I found his singing too mannered and operatic and longed instead for simple, unembellished clarity. In contrast, the Dover musicians masterfully approximated the folk style of picking and plucking strings.
The quartet closed the evening with a lush, almost symphonic traversal of Brahms’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2. Confession time: I find this opus boring and bloated, but I can’t imagine it being better handled. And boring is as far from what Tines gave his listeners, many of whom attended both concerts, as you can get.
What, When, Where
Beethoven Symphonies and a Sermon. Davóne Tines, soloist. Yannick Nézet-Seguin, conductor. The Philadelphia Orchestra. November 5-7, 2021, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. $33-$99. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
Dover Quartet with Davóne Tines, bass-baritone. Barber, Dover Beach, Op. 3. Shaw, By and By. Brahms, String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. November 5, 2021, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. $30. (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.
The Kimmel Center requires all attendees aged 12 years or older to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Patrons aged younger than 12 years must provide a negative test taken within 72 hours of the performance. Masks are required at all times. Seating for Philadelphia Orchestra concerts is not socially distanced. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society is selling its concerts this season at a reduced capacity to allow for optional social distancing.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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