Harris Theater’s “Beyond the Aria” series closes with big voices in light music

Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 11:45 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Brandon Jovanovich performed at the Harris Theater's "Beyond the Aria" concert Tuesday night.  Photo: Peter Dressel
Brandon Jovanovich performed at the Harris Theater’s “Beyond the Aria” concert Tuesday night. Photo: Peter Dressel

The Harris Theater launched its “Beyond the Aria” series last fall with great success. Taking place in a club-like atmosphere on the enclosed stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, the concerts offer the rare chance to hear Lyric Opera stars in art song and lighter repertoire in an up-close-and-personal setting.

Tuesday night brought the final event in this inaugural season of the series. As before, Craig Terry was the ebullient pianist and host, with two established Lyric stars paired with a Ryan Center artist. And while the results were more mixed than last fall, the evening was still enjoyable with fine artistry displayed by all.

The trio was made up of tenor Brandon Jovanovich–currently singing in The Passenger–soprano Amber Wagner, and baritone Will Livermore from the Ryan Center. The dry and opaque acoustic remains problematic, the issue–and volume–amplified by having two Wagnerian voices on hand, which made for some overpowering fortissimos in the intimate space.

Unsurprisingly, Jovanovich, the most seasoned artist, seemed the most comfortable and adaptable to the room. The tenor opened with “Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswort” from Lehar’s Giuditta, an idiomatic and impassioned account worthy of Richard Tauber.

If Jovanovich’s Heldentenor proved a bit overwhelming in his opener, he showed great finesse in a lighter set with a relaxed take on Cole Porter’s Night and Day and an achingly sincere, honeyed rendering of “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables.

Amber Wagner’s vast soprano made an ill-fitting match for the famous aria from Catalani’s La Wally, her loud and generalized singing missing an essential delicacy. Her set of German lieder was more convincing. She still didn’t bring much variety of dynamics or coloring to Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh, though Liszt’s Ihr Glocken von Marling evoked a poignant expression, and the soprano was fully in her element in Strauss’s Zueignung, riding the long line with luxuriant tone. Best of all was Rodgers’ With a Song in My Heart, where Wagner–after a false start–scaled down her voice and brought more subtle and expressive singing.

Wrapping his third and final year at the Ryan Center, Will Liverman showed an authoritative baritone. His set of Rachmaninoff and Medtner songs could have used greater expressive detailing, yet he sang with textual sensitivity and in worthy style. Words were not always clear, especially in the fast patter of Fats Waller’s Lulu’s Back in Town, though Liverman showed impressive versatility accompanying himself on the piano in an airport lounge-style medley of If Ever I Would Leave You and All the Things You Are.

As in previous programs, the trio teamed up for the final items, with Jovanovich (wonderfully characterful) and Liverman in the comic duet “Agony” from Into the Woods.

The steep tempo fluctuations–and an adolescent off-color retooling of one line–won’t be to the taste of most Savoyards yet the two excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore (“Refrain, Audacious Tar” and “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore”) made a lively closer.

No encores Tuesday but Terry informed the audience that “Beyond the Aria” will return next season at the Harris, welcome news for all vocal aficionados.

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