Friends Join Harlem Chamber Players For A Tenth Anniversary Vocal Feast

June 2, 2018

NY Classical Review reports that the Harlem Chamber Players held their 10th Anniversary concert Friday night at Miller Theatre, their “birthday concert,” as the group’s president Thomas Pellaton pointed out in some opening remarks. Ten years is a healthy age for a small classical music organization, and chamber music years might be something like dog years. Judging by Friday’s performance and the ambitious season the group will launch in the fall, the Harlem Players are entering maturity in excellent shape.

Friday night’s program provided an opportunity for the chamber orchestra to show their stuff. But the dominating feature was the five singers—sopranos Janinah Burnett and Brandie Sutton, mezzo Lucia Bradford, tenor Courtney Packer, and baritone Kenneth Overton—who sang a selection of arias from operas by Mozart, Verdi, Bizet, and a few others.

With David Gilbert conducting, the Harlem Chamber Players got off to a strong start with the lively overture from Mozart’s The Impresario. The orchestra showed they were a sprightly group, with polished colors and a robustly sweet sound. Miller’s boxy acoustic is not ideal for ensembles like this but the group was able to project their way past the hall’s limits.

The vocal fireworks started with Burnett’s performance of “Deh, vieni, non tardar,” from Le Nozze di Figaro. Her voice was warm and clear, her articulation was excellent, and her singing added life and sparkle to Mozart. This presaged what was to be a night of superb and tremendously enjoyable singing—Burnett set a high standard, one that each following artist equalled in turn.

Grab bags of opera excerpts, in concert or on recordings, are not to everyone’s taste. For every fan of the pure pleasures of the voice, there’s someone who would prefer to hear the music in its dramatic context. Yet there were no such issues Friday, and the singing was so fine from end to end, with barely anything to criticize, that one became a fan of the form.

Burnett was followed by Sutton, who possessed a more coloratura sound, like liquid gold and an effortless delivery. She sang a relative rarity from Donizetti, “Vieni o tu che ognora io chiamo,” from Caterina Cornare. Burnett’s bel canto style was perfectly ornamented and graceful.

Then Bradford took the stage to sing “Re dell ‘abisso affrettati” from Un ballo in maschera, and moved the bar even higher. Her voice was packed with charisma, and she has a special sound in her lower range, a sublime timbre that felt something like warm granite. Her expression was such that she inhabited the music.

Already in a vibrant, celebratory mood, the enthusiastic audience began to whoop and urge on the music while Packer sang Pinkerton’s “Addio, fiorito asil” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. His is a romantic tenor with the inherent yearning and ache in his sound that is perfect for Puccini and Verdi. He excited the crowd even more when he opened the second half with “La donna è mobile,” and paired well with Overton for Bizet’s celebrated duet “Au fond du temple saint” from Les pécheurs de perles.

With one exception, everything fell in the range of excellent to fabulous. One grew almost as giddy as the crowd as the performances each seemed to top the last. The one exception was the demanding “Per me giunto” from Don Carlo. Overton’s low, dark baritone had a good sound for it, but the range of the music was beyond his voice and a challenge to his vocal stamina. Otherwise sharp and musical all evening, the orchestra too was not at its best in this excerpt, sounding tinny.

But Overton sounded just fine in ensemble, especially a nicely measured “Soave sia il vento,” from Cosí fan tutte. Sung with Sutton and Bradford, this captured a wonderful feeling of parting.

The quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”, again from Rigoletto, closed the evening, with Burnett, Bradford, Packer, and Overton. The artistry here was impressive, with the four voices striking the right balance between ensemble blend and the independence the drama calls for.

This needed to be fine, because the penultimate number had Sutton singing “Ach, ich liebte” from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. This is music that calls for both a sweet, delicate touch and spectacular high flying. Sutton was impressive, most of all in how her runs and highest notes sounded wonderfully musical rather than just vocally athletic.

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