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MUSIC REVIEW : Asawa: Countertenor Revelations

November 21, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The countertenor isn't exactly a new breed. Men--real men--often sang with sweet, high, possibly effeminate voices way back in the Middle Ages.

For most impractical and essentially myopic purposes, however, the modern movement began with a heroic nonconformist named Alfred Deller, who made his London debut in 1943. A lyric baritone with a drastically extended, carefully cultivated top range--quasi-falsetto--he started a precious trend.

Benjamin Britten wrote the otherworldly music of Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Deller's tone in mind. Rivals and successors soon began to materialize--Russell Oberlin, James Bowman, John Ferrante, among others--and opera companies began to cast them in ornate Baroque roles originally intended for castrati (virtuosic gentleman who, pre-puberty, had been forced to give their all for art).

Countertenors were supposed to make high, sweet, tiny, flexible sounds. No one expected much power, much dynamic variety or much sensuality from a vocal apparatus that, it could be argued, was artificially produced.

Forget all that. At least, forget most of it. Two newcomers on the front happen to be blessed with extraordinarily beautiful voices, superb techniques and, hardly incidentally, the sort of personalities that could stimulate star cults above and beyond the rarefied realm of the early-music specialist.

In Germany there is Jochen Kowalski. In America there is Brian Asawa.

Asawa, 28 and a proud product of Southern California, left an imposing calling card last month in Handel's "Xerxes" with the Music Center Opera. Friday night, he revealed more of his extraordinary gifts in an uncompromising debut recital at the Japan America Theatre.

Delicately accompanied by lute (Michael Eagan) and bass viol (Mark Chatfield), Asawa began with music of Dowland and Purcell. The tone was amazingly pure, the expressive scale subtle, the interpretive stance restrained yet always urgent.

Then, with Armen Guzelimian providing sensitive collaboration on a sometimes incongruous modern piano, Asawa turned to a dramatic cantata by Vivaldi, a gutsy aria by Handel, varied Romantic Lieder of Schubert, exquisite melodies of Faure, and, finally, some witty modernist miniatures by Ned Rorem.

It was, to be sure, a discerning menu, and Asawa served it with unflagging generosity, with intelligence and elegance. It would be less than realistic to pretend that his dynamic range matches his coloristic range (that's probably the nature of the laryngeal beast), and it would be less than honest to claim that his agenda proved notable for any striking structural climaxes.

The abiding goal seemed to be muted introspection. A little of that can go a long way in the concert hall. Still, one had to be astounded by the singer's ease and grace under pressure, his daring and his fastidious concern for period detail. (If he is the one responsible, he also deserves applause for an impeccable program booklet, complete with texts, translations and helpful though uncredited annotations.)

Was everything perfect? Not quite. Even Asawa seems to be reassuringly human. Attacks sometimes began to sag in pitch as the evening wore on. Diction was occasionally sacrificed on the altar of surface prettiness. Schubert's passions remained subdued.

One inadvertent slip of the singer's tongue (or was it a slip of the listener's ear?) produced a bit of unintentional mirth. At the end of Faure's "Arpege," the poet sings of "dying in the midst of your hair"--"mourir parmi vos cheveux." Asawa, however, seemed to sing "mourir parmi vos chevaux "--which means "dying in the midst of your horses. " It isn't quite the same image.

At encore time, Asawa allowed himself some gentle flirtation with popular indulgences. Everything, of course, is relative.

First came a coloratura aria from Mozart's much-neglected "Ascanio in Alba," brilliantly dispatched. This was followed by a charming--and quite persuasive--appropriation of Cherubino's "Voi che sapete," an aria Mozart specifically wrote for a female soprano impersonating a male adolescent. To cap the evening, Asawa turned to "Che faro senza Euridice" from Gluck's "Orfeo," the singer's delicate eloquence perfectly reflected, and summarized, by Guzelimian in the keyboard postlude.

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