Vocal Master Class — With an Oyster

United StatesUnited States Legg, Barber, DeSylva/Brown/Henderson, Porter, Confrey, Berlin: Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Warren Jones (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 11.3.2013 (BH)

James Legg: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (2000)
Samuel Barber: Three Songs, Op. 10 (1935-1937)
Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson: Selected Songs
Cole Porter: Selected Songs
Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey: Kitten on the Keys” (1921)
Irving Berlin: Selected Songs

“My audiences tend to be disproportionately attractive—I like to see them,” joked Stephanie Blythe, explaining why no texts were included in her Carnegie Hall recital, “and not the tops of their heads.” As the audience laughter subsided, she explained that she and pianist Warren Jones like to read the texts aloud before presenting the composers’ interpretations—in this case, poems by Emily Dickinson and James Joyce, set by James Legg and Samuel Barber, respectively.

Before Legg died in 2000 (from a tragic home electrical accident) he wrote his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson for Blythe, who has sung the set frequently. Its appealing, mercurial language melds Dickinson’s sometimes wry, sometimes quietly wrenching words with a tonally-based idiom, with a few nods to Aaron Copland’s Dickinson settings. Highlights were the chatty “Bee! I’m expecting you!” and “I meant to find Her when I came,” a reflective glance at how death intervenes. Throughout the cycle Blythe sounded lustrous, with a clarion resonance that at times seemed to press the limits of the hall’s acoustic. This formidable set is not only a great vehicle for her, but a moving testament to the composer who, at the time of his death, was working on an opera based on Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

The songs in Samuel Barber’s Op. 10 address love, including the laconic “Rain Has Fallen,” and the lullaby-like “Sleep now,” both of which played to Blythe’s ability to plumb the meaning in a song while maintaining vocal precision. In the climactic, anguished “I hear an army,” the sound gushed forth with striking presence, with Jones hot on her heels at the keyboard.

But after intermission, Blythe showed off her vigorous cabaret chops with gems of American song from the early 20th century, starting with four songs by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. A hilarious “Button Up Your Overcoat” and a tart “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” showed her at her perkiest, followed by “The Thrill is Gone,” haunting in its simplicity, and a return to optimism with a medley of “The Best Things in Life are Free” and “Keep Your Sunny Side Up.”

It’s hard to overstate Blythe’s audience appeal; she combines the salty raconteur with a voice that can murmur at one moment and slam like a hurricane the next—all part of her arsenal of technique. Her immaculate pulse in the opening of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” was like a master class in how to manage a string of repeated notes, with the refrain showing off both her phrasing and intonation, followed by a smooth, elegant take on “You Do Something to Me.” In between the two the audience howled—who wouldn’t?—during Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” (1929), the story of a social-climbing mollusk, initially overjoyed at being eaten by a wealthy patron, but then returns to ocean life after being, well, regurgitated.

Mr. Jones had his solo star turn with Edward Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys,” done in his best honky-tonk barroom style (albeit if the bar were Carnegie Hall and the piano were a perfectly tuned Steinway), before he and Blythe focused their talents on a trio by Irving Berlin. The double-entendres in “If You Don’t Want My Peaches” (1914) were all the more hilarious with Blythe enunciating the title as crisply as if she were reprimanding a six-year-old, and then came the gentle reminiscence of “Always,” her voice dropping to a consoling purr. More funny business closed the program proper in “I Love a Piano,” with Blythe suggestively wriggling against the instrument, and when she and Jones repeated the chorus it came, giddily, twice as fast.

Two people near me (okay, all three of us) were getting choked up during the first encore, Berlin’s aching “What’ll I Do,” with the singer almost sotto voce—saving the most intimate moment of the evening for the end. And to close, more hijinks: a spoof of “Singin’ in the Rain” called “Singin’ in the Bathtub” (1929, by Michael Cleary, Herb Magidson and Ned Washington), with a merrily chirping Blythe toweling off while sashaying from side to side.

Bruce Hodges