The blazing baritone Blake Denson in recital for the London Foundation

United StatesUnited States Various: Blake Denson (baritone), Kevin Miller (piano). George and Nora London Foundation for Singers, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 28.4.2024. (RP)

Blake Denson (baritone) and Kevin Miller (piano) © Beth Bergman

Francesco Santoliquido I canti della sera
Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel
Traditional – ‘Wade in the Water’, ‘Deep River’, ‘Steal Away’ (arr. Shawn E. Okpebholo)

With baritone Blake Denson, it is all about the voice, and an impressive instrument it is indeed. On a summery spring afternoon, Denson returned to the Morgan Library with pianist Kevin Miller in a recital under the auspices of the George and Nora London Foundation for Singers.

A native of Paducah, Kentucky, Denson was a 2022 winner of the annual London Competition. Since then, he has gone on to sing with the Bayerische Staatsoper, Hamburg Staatsoper, English National Opera and Washington National Opera.

Addressing the audience, Denson said that he wanted to abolish the notion that a song recital was an upscale affair. Instead, he wanted to showcase normalcy and invited the audience into what he considered to be his living room. He wore blue jeans, as much a nod in that direction as it was due to a recent fifty-pound weight loss that left him with a limited wardrobe.

Denson opened with Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel. His approach to the songs was straightforward and, at times, almost brusque, but the sound of his voice was always classically elegant. There were, however, tender moments.

In ‘Let Beauty Awake’, Denson tapered the phrase ‘And the stars are bright in the west’ with the softest, loveliest tones, while Miller’s playing provided context and atmosphere. ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ showed Denson at his most sensitive as he floated the emotion-laden phrases.

One could have wished for a touch of reflection at the end of his stalwart ‘Bright is the Ring of Words’. Miller, however, supplied that in the postlude that concludes the cycle.

Italian composer Francesco Santoliquido (1883-1971) wrote approximately twenty-six songs, as well as other compositions. Although born in Naples, he lived a number of years in Tunis. He was prolific and garnered international recognition until his pro-fascist leanings dented his appeal in the years leading up to World War II.

I canti della sera (The Songs of the Evening) were composed in 1908, four years before Santoliquido moved to North Africa. In those days, Musical America praised them ‘as the finest of modern concert songs’. Stylistically, they are a mix of the color and lyricism of Debussy and Richard Strauss combined with the emotional pull and soaring melodies of Puccini.

Denson told the audience that the six songs in the cycle rest high in the voice, but that held no terrors for him. He ended ‘Alba di luna sul bosco’ with a ringing high note on ‘l’amore’, while in ‘Tristezza crepuscolare’ that same brilliant sound expressed melancholy and tears. The final song was the most aria-like, and it yielded some of the sweetest sounds of the recital – especially when Denson sang of a love that came from afar, as do the sounds of bells, birds and the sea.

The program ended with three Negro spirituals arranged by Shawn E. Okpebholo. The Nigerian-American composer was included in the 2023 Musical America Top 30 Professionals of the Year, and his solo album, Lord, How Come Me Here?, a collection of his reimagined spirituals, was nominated for a Grammy.

Denson is nothing if not disarmingly forthright as a performer and a person. He said that he programed the spirituals because of religious faith and, after a brief pause, he added ‘and because I’m Black’. The audience embraced him with a spontaneous outburst of warm-hearted laughter.

Okpebholo’s settings feature the piano as much as the voice. Denson started ‘Wade in the Water’ with a deep, mournful growl, but Miller’s playing of the jazzy, furtive piano part added urgency. ‘Deep River’ began with a lyrical, evocative piano introduction, and Denson sang the hymn of hope with an exquisite sadness.

The recital ended with ‘Steal Away’, in which singer and pianist displayed their deep connection to the music. Denson hums with as much resonance and emotion as he imparts when singing words.

This eloquent combination of Denson’s rock-solid voice and the purity of Miller’s playing brought the recital to a close. There were no encores but plenty of applause and cheers.

Rick Perdian

3 thoughts on “The blazing baritone Blake Denson in recital for the London Foundation”

  1. The recording of this recital should be posted on the George London Foundation website in a few weeks. I can’t wait to hear it! ‘The Opera Addict’ in the USA

  2. Great revue! Congratulations to Blake and his pianist! It was well programmed and I know, beautifully performed by both artists.


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