Friday November 18th, 2016 - I first encountered tenor Ben Bliss (above) while he was in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at The Met; he was making his Met debut as Vogelgesang in MEISTERSINGER and he stood out for three reasons: tallest man onstage, youngest of the Masters, and a voice of distinctive clarity.
Since then, I have enjoyed listening to several of Mr. Bliss's YouTube offerings which display a voice capable of incredible beauty (especially in the upper range), a deep sense of poetry in his use of dynamics, and very impressive breath control.
This evening's program commenced with four songs by Richard Strauss; my initial feeling was that Mr. Bliss was over-singing a bit, and that the piano (even with the lid down) was sometimes too loud. As the songs progressed, the tenor and his pianist Lachlan Glen achieved a more congenial blend, and in "Morgen", the sensitivity of both artists found truly rewarding expressiveness in a breath-taking performance.
Turning to the French repertoire, Mr. Bliss chose songs from Lili Boulanger's "Clarières dans le ciel"; the composer, who died tragically young, left behind a brief catalog of work of which these mélodies hold a particular appeal. Mssrs. Bliss and Glen savoured the perfume of this music in a performance filled with spine-tingling dynamic modulations. The opening "Un poète disait" served to display the tenor's marvelously heady tones, with an absolutely gorgeous final phrase. Remarkably sustained singing illuminated "Nous nous aimerons tant", its dreamy quality interrupted by a "noisy" piano interlude. Mr. Bliss managed a fine mix of passion and refinement in "Vous m'avez regardé avec toute votre âme", where Mr. Glen's playing was particularly lovely. The pianist's rippling motif set the mood for the concluding "Les lilas qui avaient fleuri" and the tenor here displayed an intrinsic sense of vocal nuance, with seductively floated upper tones and a final sustained note that was sheer heaven.
Tosti's "Marechiare" closed the rather brief first half of the program; Mr. Bliss's voice is not really Italianate in sound, but in this outgoing celebration of a passionate infatuation, he and Mr. Glen took an almost militant stance in favor of romance. I would have liked to have heard some of Tosti's more caressive tunes from Mr. Bliss, but that will have to wait for another opportunity.
Returning after the interval, the tenor had changed to a white sport coat (no pink carnation, though) for an all-English-language second half. Mr. Bliss described how he came to find the two John Gruen songs - "Spring is like a perhaps hand" and "Lady will you come with me into" - which were never published. With the aid of the composer's daughter, the manuscripts were located and copies given to the tenor. Musically whimsical, the songs border on cuteness; Mssrs. Bliss and Glen made them perfectly palatable.
Big singing marked Lowell Liebermann's "The Arrow and The Song" ("I shot an arrow into the air..."): an emphatic and almost grandiose setting. Ned Rorem's haunting setting of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" beautifully evokes the quietude of the Winter landscape, and was lovingly sung. Does Theodore Chanler's "I rise when you enter" have a sexual connotation? It seemed so this evening.
A tenor of Mr. Bliss's vocal weight and range is of course going to be singing a lot of Britten. Over the years I have come to feel that the composer's works are best represented by British singers as they seem most persuasive when sung with what we Americans refer to as a "British accent". That said, Mr. Bliss did very well by the extroverted "The Children and Sir Nameless" whilst Mr. Glen's introduction to "The Last Rose of Summer" was poetic indeed; as the song progresses, the familiar melody takes on a fresh feeling thru harmonic alterations. Mr. Bliss here again demonstrated his astonishing control in the upper range of his voice.
The final Britten offering, "The Choirmaster's Burial", is a touching narrative on the love of music and on a life dedicated to it. Singer and pianist were at their most moving here.
The final three numbers on the printed program - songs associated with Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles - are pieces Mr. Bliss grew up with. While I know them well, and can even sing two of the three, they are rather outside my musical sphere. But my companion of the evening is a huge devotee of Sinatra and Charles, and she felt that Mr. Bliss's singing - for all his efforts to the contrary - was too cultivated, and that the rendition of Ray Charles's "Hallelujah I love Her So" was all wrong.
A very well-known mezzo who was in the vanguard of the crossover phenomenon once asked me why I was put off by her crossover efforts; I replied that thousands of people can sing these Broadway and cabaret numbers to fine effect, but that there are only a half-dozen great Mélisandes in the world. She understood my point, but said she and her audiences took a lot of enjoyment from her less 'haughty' recordings. Then I asked her how she would feel if Barbra Streisand decided to sing Idamante; she giggled and rolled her eyes.
At any rate, Ben Bliss was called out for two encores tonight: a sweet "Una furtiva lagrima" and that song with the catchy lyrics from WEST SIDE STORY: "Maria..."
In December I'll be seeing Ben Bliss as Tamino at The Met and while I wish it wasn't the pared-down "family" version, I'm really looking forward to it.