Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Review: William Ferguson

Tenor William Ferguson & pianist Kenneth Merrill
March 26, University of Richmond

William Ferguson is a singing actor by trade. While he’s better than most theatrical singers in the quite different realm of art-song, he really thrives when there’s a character to portray. The Richmond-born tenor’s latest homecoming recital reinforced that perception.

Ferguson titled his program "Gods and Monsters." This collection of songs – one-half Schubert Lieder, one half American art-songs and hymns – came from the corner of the human psyche and creative spirit where prayer meets nightmare. The program turned some pretty sharp corners, from "Ave Maria" to "Erlkönig," from "Zion’s Walls" to "The Vatican Rag."

The singer’s most striking performances came in dialogues, such as Schubert’s "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden"), "Der Zweig" ("The Dwarf") and "Erlkönig" and two pieces from Mason Bates’ settings of Kenneth Koch’s "Songs from the Plays," calling for vividly contrasting characterizations. Ferguson’s shadings of vocal color, volume and physical stance were quite effective in these pieces. He needs to work on his German, though.

Bates (a classmate of Ferguson’s, both at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and the Juilliard School in New York) gives vent to wild theatricality in "This Dancing Man Was Once the Pope" and "When I Was a Young Woman," overlapping songs that weirdly picture Pope Pius XII and Israeli premier Golda Meir as ballroom dancing partners. Ferguson, who introduced Bates’ song cycle here in 2002, reprised this excerpt in wryly rollicking form.

He sang with dramatic intensity and palpably deep feeling in "Even Now . . .," Ned Rorem’s setting of Paul Monette’s poetry (from Rorem’s epic cycle "Evidence of Things Not Seen"), and in John Musto’s "Litany," a setting of Langston Hughes’ prayer for the downtrodden – more timely today than when Hughes composed it half a century ago. This pairing of songs was the program’s emotional and spiritual summit – arguably its musical summit, too.

Youthful earnestness got the better of real fervor in more overtly religious selections such as Schubert’s "Ellens Gesang III" (his version of "Ave Maria," via Walter Scott), the Negro spiritual "E’vry Time I Feel the Spirit," Aaron Copland’s settings of "Zion’s Walls" and "At the River" (from "Old American Songs") and "The Lord’s Prayer," sung as an encore.

Merrill, a veteran accompanist and conductor of voices, was a keenly responsive partner, and a technically polished and engagingly musical presence, throughout the program.