Tines brings spiritual focus, extraordinary voice to Celebrity Series program

April 27, 2023 at 11:45 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Davóne Tines performed his “Recital No. 1 MASS” Wednesday night for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Noah Elliott Morrison

What’s in a name? The question came up a couple of times during Davóne Tines’ semi-autobiographical Celebrity Series recital with pianist John Bitoy Wednesday night at Longy’s Pickman Hall.

For one, to designate the singer as a bass-baritone is to do only partial justice to an extraordinary instrument. Tines is hardly categorizable: his range spans the upper tessitura of a countertenor and the depths of a basso profundo. All of it was put to vigorous use last night.

Then there was the program itself. Called Recital No. 1 MASS, Wednesday’s thirteen offerings ended up exhibiting more of the flavor of a revival meeting than any sort of formal, liturgical proceeding. This was primarily thanks to the inclusion of five spirituals across the evening (two came in the form of encores).

Regardless, Tines’ performance, which the singer’s program note asserted meant to demonstrate that “Bach wrote about God with the same depth, complexity, and fervor as slaves,” conveyed uncommon musical and moral purpose.

The six sections unfolded without pause, each prefaced by a text from the Mass Ordinary. These settings were all composed by Caroline Shaw and channeled, to varying degrees, elements of plainchant (a couple also offered vaguely muezzin-like gestures).

The responses to these framing movements (the ordering was Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Credo, Gloria, Sanctus, and Benedictus) ranged from Handel, Bach and Margaret Bonds to Tyshawn Sorey, Moses Hogan, and Julius Eastman.

In the Baroque fare, Tines sang with glowing resonance. The shades of color he drew in “Leave me, loathsome light” from Handel’s Semele were bracing. Meantime, his account of “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion lilted, but with power.

Those qualities also emerged in his accounts of Sorey’s two arrangements of traditional spirituals, “Were You There” and “Swing Low.” In both, the composer has crafted searching, dissonant settings of these familiar texts, retaining recognizable motivic traits but otherwise thoroughly reworking their melodic shapes.

Tines sang each with raw intensity and focus. The climactic refrain of “Were You There” rang forcefully while “Swing Low” was grippingly shaped.

Much the same can be said for his account of Hogan’s “Give Me Jesus,” which proved the night’s highlight. Delivered with a blend of flawless concentration and character, the singer exhibited a total command of the music’s stylistic and registral demands, simply floating through the stratospheric spots in its final verse. The chorus of “Amens” that descended from the rafters afterwards was as surprising as it was appropriate.

Tines also did understated justice to Bonds’ beautiful, haunting “To a Brown Girl, Dead” as well as Eastman’s Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc.

The latter is a tour-de-force of stamina and energy–of the physical, musical, and principled kinds. Tines delivered it all with fortitude, color, and wit. Respite, such as it was, came in the form of the hymn-like, closing VIGIL.

Across the hour-long recital, Bitoy’s accompaniment was competent, if only spasmodically probing. Suffice it to say, keyboard parts in Handel and Bach arias shouldn’t exhibit the same robustness of tone, textural thickness, and pedal usage as songs by Margaret Bonds and Moses Hogan.

That said, the force of Bitoy’s pianism generally matched the fervency of Tines’ singing. In certain selections (the Sorey settings, say, or the quasi-improvisatory encore of “There is a Balm in Gilead”) the pair were perfectly locked-in.

Ultimately, though, Wednesday was Tines’ night, as his unaccompanied “Freude” encore–which channeled Beethoven, Lauryn Hill, and the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”–made clear. He’s a man with a message, not to mention an astonishing voice. Let those with ears hear what he has to say.

The Celebrity Series and Boston Symphony Orchestra present Osvaldo Golijov’s Falling Out of Time, 2 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org

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