At the Olympic Music Festival, the Voice Prevails in a Chamber Concert

Mozart, Brahms, et al : Stefan Hersh (violin), Alan Iglitzin (viola), Daniel Montenegro (tenor), Paul Hersh (piano), Jeffrey Fair (horn), Olympic Music Festival, Quilcene, WA. 24.7.2010 (BJ)

The idea that, on a program beginning with a Mozart duo and ending with Brahms’s great Horn Trio, a group of Italian and Spanish-language songs would provide the biggest musical satisfactions was fairly unthinkable in advance. Yet that, thanks to the local debut of a charismatic 32-year-old tenor, is what happened on the fifth weekend of this year’s Olympic Music Festival.

It is always exciting to be present when a new star makes his or her entrance on the scene, and it was unmistakably clear within the first half-dozen notes of Paolo Tosti’s Malia that we were witnessing such an entrance. Daniel Montenegro, born in southern California and currently an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, is a perfectly phenomenal singer, and musician – both categories are needed here, because they are not always coterminous. I shall be very much surprised if he does not take a prominent place among the ranks of feted tenors in the coming years.

The voice, it was evident at once, is gorgeous. Montenegro might be well termed a spinto tenor, for he blends the grace and delicacy of the lyric voice with something of the clarion firmness of a heroic tenor. A master of vocal coloration, he can shade his tone away in the most ravishing manner without losing strength of line. He has a sense of pathos, as well as a lively sense of humor, the latter being pleasantly exercised in his unpretentious introductory comments.

In a group of songs ranging from Tosti and Leoncavallo to the Latin-Americans Tata Nacho (the nom de plume of the Mexican composer Ignacio Fernández Esperón), Ginastera, Guastavino, José Padilla, and Osmán Pérez Freire, he demonstrated strikingly accurate Italian diction, French (in Leoncavallo’s Chanson des yeux) that still needs a little work to be totally idiomatic, and Spanish so clear that, even with a language in which I am far from fluent, I felt I was understanding every word. Perhaps the most exquisite combination of song and performance came in Carlos Guastavino’s lushly romantic Se equivocó la paloma, but all of the other songs, most notably Ginastera’sCanción del árbol del olvido, Padilla’s Princesita, and Peréz Freire’s Ay, ay, ay, were done to delightful effect.

In all of this Paul Hersh’s rhythmically pointed accompaniments contributed ideal support, and his piano-playing was a major strength also in the Brahms Horn Trio performance after intermission. The luminous sounds he drew from the upper reaches of the keyboard in the slow third movement were especially delectable. Jeffrey Fair, assistant principal horn of the Seattle Symphony, prefaced the performance with a fascinating demonstration of how the opening theme could be played with lips alone or with just the mouthpiece detached from the horn; with the instrument duly reassembled, he played his part cleanly and well, though I felt that a touch more expansiveness would have benefitted some of the instrument’s broader phrases. Violinist Stefan Hersh’s somewhat narrow range of tone, moreover, militated against good textural balance both here and in the Mozart B-flat-major Duo for violin and viola with which he and violist Alan Iglitzin opened the program.

By ordinary standards, let me emphasize, these were thoroughly decent and intermittently beautiful performances. But the standards of Iglitzin’s festival are not ordinary, and on this occasion it was with the singer of the day that the highest artistic peaks we have come to expect in Quilcene were so memorably scaled.

Bernard Jacobson