A pair of recitals this week by baritone Justin Austin (winner of this year’s Marian Anderson Vocal Award) and tenor Jonah Hoskins offered not just stellar singing and keen song selection but also a reminder of the expressive capability of a well-wrought recital program.
There was a lot of audible love in the room for Austin on Tuesday evening. It was an understandable reception, given the singer’s history in town. With Washington National Opera, he performed in the 2021 world premiere of Damien Geter and Lila Palmer’s “American Apollo” as part of the American Opera Initiative. In February, he sang with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the Washington Performing Arts premiere of Geter’s “Cotton.” And this season he made his role debut as Mercutio in the WNO production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
But his recital at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater put Austin where he belongs, center stage, with accompanist Howard Watkins. As a map of Austin’s musical journey, the recital moved through spirituals and standard repertoire into 20th-century and contemporary art song and opera. It also found Austin dominating the stage, leaning against the walls, lowering himself to the floor, standing at its edge, palms out and up. He is a natural performer — a star awaiting a galaxy to form around him.
Austin opened and closed his recital on spiritual notes — beginning with Shawn Okpebholo’s luminously spare arrangement of “Oh, Freedom” and later an encore of Julia Perry’s “I’m a Poor Li’l Orphan in This World,” a low-glowing spiritual with accompaniment by Watkins as soft as moonlight.
But the program between these bookends proved Austin more than an exciting singer — with a burly, burnished tone capable of striking nuance and color. He’s an equally intriguing thinker. Tuesday’s performance had the casual self-portraiture of a cabaret, the variety and depth of a solid DJ set and the unabashed anti-fascist spirit of a punk show.
A lively reading of Ravel’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” put early focus on Watkins’s attentive accompaniment — a fine fit to Austin’s elastic theatricality. This was put on full display for Klezmer singer and composer Daniel Kahn’s “Embrace the Fascists.” Based on a 1931 poem by Kurt Tucholsky, it’s an acidic, sardonic primer for how not to handle Nazis: “You wouldn’t want to start a fight, for fighting is what they do best. Embrace the fascists and you’ll be blessed.”
Once struck, this foreboding chord resonated the rest of the night: A fiery account of the “Ballad of the Easy Life” from Weill and Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” delivered us into intermission, with the same show’s “Call From the Grave/Death Message” welcoming us back. Austin sank to the floor and found stunning softness and subtlety in its andante.
His voice hovered like a vapor over Ricky Ian Gordon’s setting of Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl,” and I loved the detail and drama he brought to Gordon’s “Marvin Gaye Songs” — a two-part setting of text by poet Vievee Francis, strewn with stray bits of Gaye’s music, lovingly indulged by Watkins.
The two made something sublime of Robert Owens’s “Mortal Storm,” an aching five-song setting of Hughes. In fact, one could easily imagine Austin performing an entire night of Hughes settings, so naturally suited are the contours of his voice with the shadings of Hughes’s poetry. Along with Perry’s “Orphan,” Austin offered the powerful parting second encore of Damien Sneed’s “I Dream a World,” a setting of Hughes composed specifically for the baritone in 2021.
It was a performance and a program that balanced ease and urgency, the political and the personal — using the recital hall as a stage and the stage as a platform.
The next night at the Terrace Theater, tenor Johan Hoskins took an equally autobiographical turn with his Vocal Arts DC recital.
Accompanied with deep sensitivity and masterful touch and timing by pianist William Woodard, Hoskins opened with a suite of calisthenic musical portraits by Jake Heggie. “Friendly Persuasions” is a short, four-song cycle concerned with French composer Francis Poulenc’s coterie of friends and associates. It was a clever opening selection, allowing Hoskins to shape-shift and show the many sides of his jeweled tenor — more often put in service of the lighthearted lyricism of Rossini or Donizetti.
“You probably thought you were going to come here to laugh,” Hoskins said from the stage, “but not tonight!”
From there his program — informally titled “Down the Rabbit Hole” — offered what he termed “a spiritual autobiography” in musical images: The blooming of a flower in a dream and the longing for that dream in reality (Lee Hoiby’s “What If …”); the joy of love and the fragility of life (Schumann’s “Du bist wie eine Blume” and “Meine Rose”); the anguish of loss (Heggie’s “Ophelia’s Song,” with its devastating refrain: “The spring is arisen and I am a prisoner there”).
Hoiby’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” (a reference to a party phase, perhaps?) delivered a sudden tonal shock and a showcase of the power of Hoskins’s instrument, which occasionally graveled out when pushed demandingly low. A lighthearted suite of jaunty Satie pieces — “Les Trois Melodies” — furnished fresh pre-intermission smiles, in large part thanks to Woodard’s keen timing and wit.
We returned to confront a sequence of monsters: Those in our imagination (Hoiby’s “Jabberwocky”), those in the mirror (Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger”) and those that steal our innocence (Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig,” to which Hoskins lent a raw-edge terror).
But it was in the final stretch that Hoskins let his voice get comfortable and reveal itself. A duo of songs about solitude — Samuel Barber’s “Desire for Hermitage” and Heggie’s “Joy Alone” — prefaced a spectacular account of Benjamin Britten’s “Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine.” To italicize the love letter to tenor Peter Pears that Britten coded into this 17th-century text by Francis Quayle, Hoskins swirled extra sweetness into its closing lento. I would love to hear Hoskins sing more Britten — it was electric and alive, and seemed to coax a depth that was otherwise fleeting.
He ended the program with Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from “Company” — an uplifting finish that suffered awkward silences from the absence of voices reprimanding the anxious Robert. A pair of encores found Hoskins dipping into a sweet spot of his repertoire, a lovingly decorated “Ah! Mes Amis” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment.” This was followed by Jack Gold and Marty Paich’s deeply neurotic arrangement of “Jingle Bells?” — appropriately fitted with a question mark for Barbra Streisand’s 1967 “A Christmas Album.”
Like every other song on the program, Hoskins made clear that this one was personal.
“You might be tempted to sing along,” he said as a preface with a cheeky smile. “Please don’t. This is my recital, not yours!”