Copland's "Old American Songs" and Orff's "Carmina Burana" may seem an odd couple, but Robin Buck will sing them both on Saturday with the Pacific Symphony. Actually, the pairing of folksy intimacy with over-the-top theatricality captures the twin spirits of the baritone's career.
"I was motivated by theater, as far as performing goes," he said over lunch in Pasadena. "That's the direction I thought I wanted to go in life. 'Carmina Burana' has to be one of the most theatrical cantatas written, and especially for the baritone because there are so many changes. Each piece in it I sing is different, and that's a real challenge and delight."
But Buck also has developed a love for lieder and chamber music. "I probably do at least two (lieder) recitals a year," he said. "Every piece of lieder is like a miniature opera. With your voice and your face you create everything in it. It's a form of expression that is very elusive."
Copland's "Old American Songs" are much in vogue, particularly for concerts making a statement about repertory intentions. Thomas Hampson sang the second set in September during the nationally televised concert with which Kurt Masur began his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and Bruce Hubbard sang five of them with John Mauceri in the first concerts by the revived Hollywood Bowl Orchestra last summer.
There is nothing quite so epochal about Saturday's concert at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, but there will be a twist to the Copland business.
"We're doing seven songs from the two sets, differently than I've ever done them," Buck said. "The orchestra seems to have its own arrangements, with chorus in some of the songs."
Buck, 36, was born in Laguna Beach and received his early training through local schools. It's unlikely, he realizes, that youngsters today would be as fortunate.
"I did musicals and plays through high school, where I was introduced to classical music," he said. "It's very sad, the situation in schools today. If it wasn't for the schools, I wouldn't have been exposed to a lot of things, and I had a lot of opportunities to perform there. I didn't really have music in the home, growing up."
But if music is disappearing from the schools, it is turning up now in places around the county that didn't exist when Buck was young.
"It's pretty remarkable how things have grown," he said. "I'm glad that culturally, at least, something has developed."
Trained at Chapman University and then at USC, Buck has connected with many local organizations ranging from the Crystal Cathedral, where he has been Joseph in "The Glory of Christmas" ("Talk about being upstaged by animals! It's unlike anything else I've ever done.") to the late Orange County Chamber Orchestra, with which he was scheduled to sing the "Old American Songs." ("That was unfortunate. It's always sad when a company goes under.")
He will be back with the Pacific Symphony in November for two performances of Durufle's Requiem at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Later in the season he will sing Jesus in Bach's "St. Matthew" Passion with William Hall--his old mentor from Chapman--and the Master Chorale of Orange County.
Farther afield, he made his New York City Opera debut this season, singing Silvio in a new production of "Pagliacci" at the State Theater in Lincoln Center, "which probably has the worst acoustics of any house in the States." He also made his Carnegie Hall debut as the baritone soloist in Nielsen's Third Symphony, for Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony on a tour that also brought Buck to Boston and New Haven.
He has sung Falke for the Anchorage Opera and Papageno with the Connecticut Grand Opera and studied with Hans Hotter and Elly Ameling on a grant at the Schubert Institute in Vienna.
"I had to spend six weeks in the Caribbean this winter," he added with little sigh of regret, "singing opera twice a week on a Cunard cruise."
Still, New York has figured so much in Buck's career of late that he now calls it home.
"It's just logistics," he said. "Most of the companies audition in New York, and I had a lot of work there last year."
Buck's varied career also encompasses musical theater and the non-musical stage. Last year, he played an opera singer on the ABC series "Life Goes On."
He thinks that kind of artistic stretching is characteristic of his generation--and nationality.
"I think American singers are more open to a wide variety of challenges. In this country, you almost have to be." He considers himself lucky to have a voice suitable for many tasks. "And the older I get, the more possibilities open up. The voice takes on more colors and gets bigger."
* \o7 Robin Buck sings with the Pacific Symphony on Saturday at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Curtain: 8 p.m. $10 to $44. Parking: $6. (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster). \f7