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Thomas Meglioranza at the Italian Academy

Ever since I heard him sing for the first time, a little over a year ago, I've been a big fan of baritone Thomas Meglioranza. If you're a regular reader of the Daily Blague, you already know that. By nature a stay-at-home slug, I will do my best to show up where- and whenever Tom sings.

Last Wednesday night, Tom gave a recital, accompanied by the wizardry of Reiko Uchida's fingers, at the Italian Institute at Columbia University. The theme was Italian song, and Tom, who is very good with themes, took this one in daring directions. Of the eight composers, only Busoni (three songs) and Rossini (one) were Italian, and of the lyrics, only only three songs, all by Schubert, were in Italian. Three songs by Gabriel Fauré, listed as "Mélodies de Venise," were setting of poems by Paul Verlaine, two of them, "En sourdine" and "Mandoline" from Fêtes Galantes, one of the most musically fertile collections in the history of literature. Also anchored to La Serenissima were Schumann's Zwei Venetianische Lieder. These six songs constituted the beauty part of the recital; the only word for Tom's interpretation of "En sourdine" is "dreamy." Earlier, Tom sang three songs from Charles Ives's From Early Italian Poets, which Tom rendered painless and almost interesting (as distinct from crazy). "Look, ma, I got my yearly shot of Ives and it didn't even hurt!" The only Italian thing about Busoni's Goethe-Lieder was the composer's last name. Toward the end of the program, Tom almost crumpled up the theme and threw it away, with excerpts from Cathy Berberian's Stripsody and Derek Bermel's Nature Calls. As with John Cage's Arioso, part of which Tom sang at his Café Sabarsky gig last month, Stripsody's score is a matter of pictures, not notes, and it involves very little singing. As for the lovely Bermel songs, Tom sang them in February at his Symphony Space recital, the theme of which was songs by living American composers. What's Italian about them? It seems that Mr Bermel spends a lot of time in Italy, and that this set of three songs has been performed there: Tom sang the last one, "Dog," in an Italian translation. The program began and ended, however, on a genuinely Italian note. Schubert's Drei Gesänge für Bass-Stimme mit Klavier are settings of Italian lyrics, two of them by opera-meister Metastasio, and they are first-class Rossini counterfeits. (Schubert tried very hard to emulate Rossini's enormous success in Vienna.) Rossini's "Le chanson du bébé" finished things off in a truly delightful way, with a little boy cavatining "pipi, maman, papa, ca-CAAAAA!" I've loved this song for decades, but I never thought I'd hear it in person.

One shudders to imagine what a singer less gifted than Thomas Meglioranza would have made of this program. But if Tom is doing what the critics are always clamoring for - bringing forward new and unfamiliar music - he is doing it properly, by making it as beautiful and interesting as it can be. Aside from the twinkling of the "Lied des Mephistopheles," for example, nothing about the Busoni songs found a place in my memory, but while I was listening to them I was not impatient for them to end, and if I ever do come to understand this music it will because Tom laid the groundwork. The unearthly fact about Tom's performances is that he has mastered the art of singing in a past life, and can concentrate now upon presentation. He doesn't sing; he sings to you. And he does this not by sexing up the emotions or resorting to other manipulative devices, but by believing totally that the music that he's singing ought to be sung. He may not convince you of its worth, but you will never want him to stop making the case. You will instead want to know the date of the next event. The next event here in New York is, I believe, on 10 May, at Weill Recital Hall, with the MET Chamber Orchestra directed by James Levine. The program, as intimidating as a roller-coaster, will consist exclusively of music by Milton Babbitt. I've got my ticket, and I can't wait to tell you what it was like.

Update: Actually, Tom will be singing at the next New York Collegium concert on 5 May, at St Vincent Ferrer. (I'll be there.) He sang in Escondido the other day and will perform in Indianapolis at the end of the month. Consult www.meglioranza.com for complete listings.


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