Burton closes Celebrity Series season with music of faith, doubt and mortality

May 26, 2022 at 10:53 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton performed with pianist Lindsay Garritson Wednesday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall was a long time in the making. But while illness forced the recital’s postponement from January, its program, called “Immortal Dreams,” only seemed to grow in relevance since the winter.

Drawing on themes of mortality and shared humanity, the evening’s selections by J. S. Bach, Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Fauré, and Margaret Bonds were timely. And, though the concert’s duration was brief—the intermission-less affair lasted just over an hour—it didn’t lack for depth. The program’s exploration of faith, doubt, imagination, and relationships contained multitudes.

For Bach, of course, there was always the Divine and the hope of Eternity. His cantata BWV 82, “Ich habe genug,” doesn’t shy away from life’s challenges: its central aria, “Schlummert ein,” meditates on earth’s miseries and the concluding “Ich freue mich” anticipates the protagonist’s death and release into Heaven.

As such, despite the death-centered theme, it’s not a particularly grim piece. The opening movement, with its mellifluous oboe obbligato, is a flowing, dignified aria. “Schlummert ein” features an achingly beautiful, berceuse-like refrain. Even that peculiar finale is, in effect, a lilting dance.

Burton’s performance Wednesday was structurally aware: each iteration of the “Schlummert ein” chorus, warm and textually precise, took on a slightly different tonal hue. So did the closing aria’s recurring main theme. Most striking, though, were the cantata’s pair of recitatives, both of which he dispatched with bracing intensity.

Pianist Lindsay Garritson delivered a reflective, cleanly balanced account of the involved accompaniment while Kemp Jernigan’s outer-movement oboe solos were pliant and shapely.

Though Bach’s faith shines through “Ich habe genug,” Brahms’s latent skepticism colors his Four Serious Songs. Written in 1896, less than a year before the composer’s death, the piece employs a quartet of biblical texts: two from Ecclesiastes and one each from Sirach (considered apocryphal by most Protestants) and 1st Corinthians. Together, in Burton’s words, they demonstrate the “futility of a life lived without love or connection.”

He and Garritson certainly had the music’s shadowy impulses well in hand. The textures of the opening “Denn es gehet dem Menschen” burbled murkily and “Ich wandte mich’s” accompanimental lines danced darkly. While the culminating section of the third song, “O Tod,” would have benefited from starker contrasts of dynamics and intensity, the closing “Wenn ich mit Menschen und mit Engelszungen redete,” energetically sung and pristinely shaped, was radiant.

Likewise compelling was Fauré’s Mirages. Here, the rule was for exquisite balances, careful attention to nuances of dynamics, and excellent direction to the vocal line.

Indeed, Burton sounded eminently at ease articulating Fauré’s largely syllabic settings of poems by Renée de Brimont. “Cygne sur l’eau” was steeped in nobility, “Jardin nocturne” potently shaped. By the time the concluding “Danseuse” rolled around, there was the distinct sense of the singer simply living this music.

For her part, Garritson drew a huge range of colors from the deceptively simple-looking piano part. Playing with a keen ear for texture as well as the subtle phrase, she was most impressive in the enchanting “Reflets dans l’eau,” with its climactic sequence of splashing triplets.

Rather less complex but equally ear-catching was the pair’s traversal of Margaret Bonds’ “Three Dream Portraits.” These adaptations of Langston Hughes texts are rawer and less cerebral than the Fauré. Yet they’re arrestingly subtle harmonically, and, above all, excellent demonstrations of how to naturally marry words to music (no small feat, given Hughes’ astoundingly lyrical way with language).

Wednesday’s reading of the short triptych—“Minstrel man,” “Dream variation,” and “I, too”—felt unfailingly right, technically and emotionally, especially the hazy, haunting ending of the latter.

Burton prefaced his final selection with a gentle warning about music and the subtle activism of a program like this, saying that exploring the night’s themes is well and good, but “meaningless” without a willingness—from performers and listeners—to follow up with actions. Accordingly, his encore of Ernest Charles’ bittersweet “When I Have Sung My Songs” served as both a plea and a benediction.

This program is available via stream through May 31. The Celebrity Series opens its 2022-23 season with the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing music by Gabriella Ortiz and Gustav Mahler at 5 p.m. October 23 at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org

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