Eclectic Dominican University benefit concert offers something for everyone

Mon Mar 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Dominican University’s Trustee Benefit Concert is an annual spring music tradition, which area patrons of the arts, venue presenters and opera lovers have been marking as a “don’t miss” event on their calendars for thirty seasons now.

The brainchild of late Dominican University president, chancellor and arts patroness Sr. Candida Lund, O.P. — for whom the intimate River Forest campus auditorium where these concerts take place was named — these benefits have raised more than five million dollars for student scholarships while featuring a “who’s who” of performers over the years that are the envy of larger presenters.

Baritone Sherrill Milnes gave the first recital in 1981, and such opera luminaries as Carlo Bergonzi, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, Denyce Graves, Jerry Hadley, Samuel Ramey, June Anderson, Dawn Upshaw, Renée Fleming and Deborah Voigt, among others, have graced the series over the years.  Instrumentalists have included Isaac Stern, James Galway, Alicia de Larrocha, André Watts and Midori; the full St. Paul Chamber Orchestra even put in an appearance back in 1989.

After experimenting last year with a jazz recital by Diane Reeves, this celebratory year sees a return to the genre that was the driving force behind Sr. Candida founding the series: opera.  Baritone Nathan Gunn and soprano Elizabeth Futral gave a recital Sunday afternoon — each with their own respective accompanists — that fit the festive nature of the occasion.  With its operatic arias, show tunes, cabaret songs, excerpts from new works — even pop songs — there was something for everyone.

The format was part Three Tenors minus one, part extended Die Fledermaus party scene, and even had a Ferrante & Teicher feel to it given that both accompanists had their own grand pianos placed across from one another and which were even played together at a couple of points in the program.  The foursome, including pianists William Billingham and Julie Jordan Gunn, Nathan’s wife, walked out together and took constant bows together; whoever was not performing at the moment would sit and flank the sides of the stage in plain view.

The afternoon began with a Mozart set that included the Là ci darem la mano duet from Don Giovanni, which Gunn began sturdily but which Futral overshot and ove sang with erratic vibrato.  Likewise, Futral’s Misera, Elvira…Mi tradi was tenuous and never fully in her control; at one point she actually paused mid-run to take a breath.  She fared better with the duet Signor…Crude!  Perchè finora from Le nozze di Figaro, which had both blending together well, and Gunn also rendered a suave solo Serenade from Giovanni.

By the time the duo performed excerpts from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Futral was more in her element in Quel guard oil cavaliere…So anch’io ka virtu nagica not only in terms of technique and timbre — her extended trill was exquisite — but she acted out the scene convincingly as well.  For his part, Gunn brought energy and playfulness to Dr. Matesta’s Bella siccime un angelo and both hit their stride with their chemistry, vocal agility and playfulness in the duet A punire il nipote…Pronta io son.

Twentieth-century opera was represented with Futral’s rendering of No word from Tom from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and 21st-centry opera, most intriguingly, with both Gunn and Futral offering an angular duet on forgiveness from André Previn’s new opera Brief Encounter.

Both artists offered solo sets. Gunn led off with two Tom Waits songs, believe it or not, The Briar and the Rose and the waltz-like Innocent When You Dream that gained little in transposition to a trained voice. These were followed by three William Bolcom cabaret songs, Fur, Over the Piano and George, all of which came off as trivial and revealed, if nothing else, that Waits can write more interesting lyrics than Arnold Weinstein.

For her solo set, Futral offered more substantial fare with a four-song set by Ricky Ian Gordon that was one of the highlights of the afternoon.  An introspective poet and lyricist, as a composer Gordon has a sweeping penchant for melody and knack for creating spicy contrasting harmony.  The ballad Will There Really Be a Morning revealed his poignant side, Wild Swans his playful side, and The Red Dress (after the poem by Dorothy Parker) — which Futral wore as well as sang, spoke with eloquence and irony about our need to covet things that we quickly outgrow once we actually have them.

Gunn sang the two big Lancelot songs from Camelot, C’est Moi with the right blend of arrogance and charm and If Ever I Would Leave You, the latter with the rarely-heard French introductory verse while Futral’s “show” set included a tender and heartfelt rendition of Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are followed by a spectacular delivery of one of her signature pieces, Glitter and Be Gay from Bernstein’s Candide which brought down the house.

The finale of Tonight from West Side Story was anti-climactic in that a needless two-piano accompaniment meant that tempos were slow, Gunn was out of his range (it was written for the tenor voice) and Futral missed an entrance.

Also along the way of the three-hour afternoon was also a film about Dominican University (preaching to the choir given that those there had already laid out big bucks to help the school), a rendition of the Percy Grainger arrangement of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Fantasy for two pianos, and the presentation of the Bravo Award, an annual Dominican tradition that originated in 1982.

This year’s recipient, Ravinia CEO and president Welz Kauffman, was given the award on stage and used the occasion not only to give a speech about declining classical music audiences that preached the need to find alternative media but he also chose to sit down at one of the pianos and accompany Nathan Gunn singing Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? at the conclusion of which Kaufman handed him exactly that.

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