Stanford Live will host three vocalists for recitals in Bing Concert Hall: Gerald Finley (left) on February 4, Davóne Tines (top right) on Feb 17, and Jakub Józef Orliński (Mar 11).
The voice is not only the oldest of all musical instruments—some evolutionary models even hold that singing predates the development of spoken language. Yet the contexts in which this ancient form of communication is presented can change dramatically, reflecting the ever-shifting priorities and realities of the present moment.
Three extraordinary vocalists appearing on the Stanford Live calendar in February and March have developed unique, highly personal approaches to the art of the recital: Gerald Finley, a Canadian bass-baritone in the prime of a scintillating international career (Feb 4); and bass-baritone Davóne Tines (Feb 17) and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński (Mar 11), two artists from the young generation of singers who are dynamically reshaping what audiences expect from the exchange that happens in live performance.
The mere fact of returning to live performance after being deprived for so long gives an added charge to these appearances—especially in light of the stigma that, as one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s shocking effects, became attached to the act of singing itself.
For all the live and archival streams that proliferated to keep the lines of communication open, there simply is no substitute. “Performing in front of people is the only time where I feel that my entire being is put to work,” says Davóne Tines, Musical America’s 2022 Vocalist of the Year. “Along with a physical presence on many levels—from the minutiae of the vocal cords and breathing to the entirety of one’s body—it requires mental focus and acuity to sustain that engagement.”
Finley similarly speaks of the “amazing amount of concentration and focus” needed to perform a live vocal recital. “There’s much more pressure these days to do concerts and opera,” he adds. Yet the special connection with audiences that takes place in a recital is more than worth the effort. “It’s about living each musical moment and trying to honor whatever response the composer has to the poetry. Normally, I get into a zone where time becomes irrelevant.”
"Performing in front of people is the only time where I feel that my entire being is put to work." —Davóne Tines
For his current recital tour, Finley has created a program that combines centerpieces of the art song repertoire by Schubert and Hugo Wolf with a new song cycle informed by the experience of the pandemic. Titled Without Ceremony and receiving its West Coast premiere, the cycle by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage sets seven poems by Thomas Hardy from 1912–13 grappling with the death of the poet’s wife.
Along with his interpretations of classic roles (such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Iago), the Grammy Award-winning Finley is a committed new music advocate and will create the role of Mark Antony in San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Antony and Cleopatra by John Adams in September. Other leading characters he has created include Turnage’s millennial The Silver Tassie (set during World War One). Turnage wrote Without Ceremony with Finley’s voice in mind—the most recent example of a longstanding collaboration between composer and singer. Much of Turnage’s music, says Finley, involves themes of “coming to terms with the loss of people we love and trying to find a way back into the operation of the world without the main cog in our life.”
To envision balance between performing existing classical pieces and new material, Finley has to start from a position of loving the music he has chosen, convinced that he has selected a program that traces a compelling emotional journey while at the same time showing off “the best things of these composers and of myself as a performer.” Finley gives much attention to the way the mood of the material transitions across the span of a performance, as well as to the “heartfelt response” of composers to the poetry they set to music.
It’s a tall order—and one very different from the challenge of performing in opera, where the singer is part of a larger whole comprising the rest of the cast, the conductor and orchestra, sets, costumes, lighting, and a preset narrative. “The two of us onstage are the whole,” as Finley puts it, referring to himself and his frequent partner at the piano, Julius Drake. Scored for unaccompanied voice, the title song of Turnage’s cycle strips that configuration down even further.
“One doesn't want to develop into a singer who is just standing there trying to sing their teacher’s technique to the full,” Finley adds. As a seasoned performer and mentor to young singers, his advice boils down to the adage “be yourself.” It took the 62-year-old singer until he was well into his career to realize a key truth: “I was going to be much better at being an artist if I allowed my own self to fully blossom rather than try to be the singers I admired.”
The youngest of the three singers performing at Stanford Live, the 31-year-old countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński recently celebrated a career milestone with his Metropolitan Opera debut as the underworldly alter-ego of Orpheus in Eurydice, Matthew Aucoin’s new opera based on the play by Sarah Ruhl. But it was important for the Orliński to make space in his calendar for the North American recital tour that brings him to Bing Concert Hall.
Orliński began his collaboration with pianist Michał Biel while studying at the prestigious Opera Academy of the Grand Theatre in Warsaw. Photo by Radosław Rzepecki
“I try to be a versatile singer,” he explains. “Every type of performing situation gives you a different sort of satisfaction. Often, we singers just give a concert here and there, but I wanted to do a proper recital tour. A vocal recital is one of the most difficult settings that a singer can face, because there is only you and the piano and no other action.”
Orliński responds to the challenge by giving performances celebrated for passionate, intense emotional engagement with his audience. All of this is enhanced by the musical affinity he has established with his piano partner, Michał Biel, who he began collaborating with while both studied at Opera Academy, the prestigious young artists program at the Grand Theatre in Orliński’s native Warsaw.
The recital context is something Orliński doesn’t take for granted. He has earned acclaim for uncovering hidden gems of the Baroque era—this year he is releasing a short film in which he sings Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater—but the traditional art song repertoire essentially ignores his voice type. This holds true for the little-known lieder by Polish composers who are the focus of his forthcoming album, Farewells, and who comprise part of his touring program—many from the late-19th to early-20th centuries, when Poland was still dominated by foreign powers. “There’s a cycle by Tadeusz Baird called Four Love Sonnets and folks song arrangements by Karol Szymanowski, for example, which we arranged for countertenor. The idea is to introduce something of our Polish heritage to the world because I think this music deserves to be better known.”
Orliński gives an impression of boundless energy—in keeping with a physically connected stage presence that has also found expression in modeling and prize-winning breakdancing. His starting point as a singer was with a choir he joined at the age of eight. He recalls that finding his countertenor voice was “quite natural but not easy to follow up with development. I’m really grateful for the previous generation of countertenors who taught me so much just by putting out their recordings. The countertenor technique has developed to an incredible level over the past 10 to 20 years.”
At 35 years old, the acclaimed bass-baritone Davóne (pronounced da-VON) Tines has spent more than four years curating and shaping his vision of a vocal recital. In lieu of the traditional pianist-singer configuration, the performance is being presented in connection with his role as a Creative Partner with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) and includes members of the orchestra and chorale along with special guests.
“I began by asking ‘what are the expectations of a recital? What are my own values? How did those things play together or not?’ This is why it has taken such a long time to realize what is the best way that I can make my first foray into this form of concertizing—and do that with integrity, excavating and sharing a deeper part of myself,” says Tines.
Davóne Tines' PBO Sessions performance in February will be a return visit to Stanford Live for the singer after starring in American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) and PBO's The No One's Rose, which premiered at Bing Concert Hall in August 2021. Photo by Michael Spencer
A member of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) co-founded by Matthew Aucoin and Zack Winokur, Tines brings to his work a vision of the artist’s responsibility to address social issues and our present moment. Together with Winokur, Tines teaches a class at Harvard titled "How To Be a Tool: Storytelling across Disciplines" and based on the premise that “how one tells a story is crucial to move ideas toward action.”
Tines has drawn on these techniques to shape what Tines calls “the dramaturgy of the recital.” The result, Recital No. 1: Mass, reimagines traditional settings of the Roman Catholic liturgy by juxtaposing a new commission by Caroline Shaw and arrangements by Tyshawn Sorey and himself with music by J.S. Bach, Julius Eastman, and Margaret Bonds.
The opening plea for mercy, for example (Kyrie eleison), “is somebody asking for help in a very broad or deep way—or at least realizing that there's a problem.” Shaw’s plaintively straightforward setting is presented alongside a Bach cantata excerpt and one of Sorey’s arrangements of spirituals from Songs for Death. Together, these build up a “kaleidoscopic engagement with the same subject that happens over and over. So over the course of the program, you see that there are different aesthetic ways, different cultural contexts of looking at the same human situations.”
Eventually, says Tines, he hopes to develop his idea of the recital even further into a “visual album.” Whether he’s preparing an opera role or recreating the genre of the vocal recital, the singer attests to the importance of “mapping one's own personal experience onto the [musical] text in its many forms and layers. This gives a performer the opportunity to do more than just present but to be deeply engaged in the role with the reality of their actual being.”
Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. He contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival as well as to The New York Times and Musical America.
Gerald Finley, bass-baritone and Julius Drake, piano
Fri, February 4
Bing Concert Hall
PBO Sessions with Davóne Tines, bass-baritone and PBO Creative Partner
Thu, February 17
Jakub Józef Orliński, counter-tenor and Michał Biel, piano
Fri, March 11
Bing Concert Hall