William Ford | 15 NOV 2022
On this crisp autumn afternoon, Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall hosted the annual Spivey Memorial Concert featuring tenor Ben Bliss and pianist Craig Terry. About sixty patrons attended Sunday’s concert which presented a mixture of art songs, operatic arias, and mid-20th-century American songs.
Mr. Bliss is an imposing figure on stage. He is tall and lean, characteristics that lessen the need for him to “overact” while singing. He has a clear yet full tenor, with no hint that the music ever challenges him technically. He has excellent breath control and is a relaxed singer; that is, his diaphragm and larynx don’t appear to struggle to keep his airflow. Yet, when he transitions from his operatic style to more popular songs, he becomes quite relaxed, retaining little to no body tension.
Mr. Terry is a fine accompanist who provides skilled, non-obtrusive support to Mr. Bliss. The refined acoustic of Spivey Hall was perfectly suited to this duo. No muddying echo yet having a warm reverberant decay.
The program began with an aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Bliss’s voice was warmed up from the start, and his lack of overdone facial and body expressions was appreciated.
Next was a set of four romantic songs by Henri Duparc titled Serenade. Duparc lived from 1848 to 1933 and gave up composing at age 37 due to mental illness. He eventually became blind, and he destroyed most of his output. He left only about forty of his works. While he is often described as a late-romantic composer, these four songs have roots in Impressionism also. Again Mr. Terry was restrained and did not allow himself to wallow in the romantic sentimentality of the lyrics. His performance was dignified but not lacking in emotion.
Next was an aria from Handel’s opera seria Tamerlano, which is not often heard today. Mr. Bliss was fittingly bold in “Heaven and earth, arm yourselves with scorn…” and his low-keyed acting style never undercut the lyrics.
Respighi’s 1912 Pioggia followed the intermission. This composer is mostly known to American audiences for his popular Roman Trilogy, but his output was prodigious. His late-romantic style is easily accessible and quite cinematic. I suspect that composer/conductor John Williams “went to school” a bit on the music of Respighi for his own soundtracks. Pioggia is a song about the glories of rain for parched plants and trees. Again, Bliss’s rich tenor allowed the music to soar.
Francesco Paolo Tosti’s La Serenata followed. The composer’s music has very singable melodies and lots of sentimentality. This song is a passionate monument to his blond signora. Because of its over-the-top sentiments, lesser singers might wallow in the emotional content, but fortunately, Mr. Bliss saved us from that.
Next were two songs (Nos. 2 and 6) from Bellini’s Sei Ariette. Both are about- see if you can guess- a man’s passionate love for his lovely rose. This was followed by Leoncavallo’s Mattinata, about a man exhorting his love to open the door to her serenader, meaning him. The final operatic-type song was Gastoldon’s Musica proibita. The composer is mostly associated with salon songs, including this one, which remains very popular, especially in Italy. It tells the story of a woman whose mother forbids her to sing her lover’s song, so she does so when alone. Again, Bliss eschewed saccharine emotions for a nicely controlled approach.
The final three works on the program were from the “Great American Song Book,” including “This Time the Dream’s on Me,” “One for My Baby,” and “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home,” all by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, and “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn. In these three songs, Bliss became more relaxed, and his voice and manner were more fluid in keeping with the style of the music. He is a versatile singer who can adapt his staging and voice to respect a song’s music and lyrics, but at no time did he lose focus or control.
In response to an enthusiastic audience response, the duo returned for a gorgeous rendition of “Maria” from Bernstein’s West Side Story, although I thought Mr. Terry was a bit behind Mr. Bliss’ tempo. Again, the audience showed its appreciation, and the concert ended with what Mr. Bliss said was a German song titled “Magical Music.” It was a gorgeous piece that packed a wallop when sung by Bliss. It was a great ending to this afternoon of mostly unfamiliar works about passionate love and loss.
But there are two small points: the program notes were presented with such a small font that they were difficult to read, especially with low ambient auditorium lighting. In addition, the translations and lyrics were not in the same order as the songs appeared in the program.
Notwithstanding these minor annoyances, this was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with a talented singer and pianist who were greatly appreciated by the audience. ■
- Ben Bliss: benblisstenor.com
- Craig Terry: lyricopera.org/about/company/artists-musicians/craig-terry
- Spivey Hall: spiveyhall.org