A successful song recital is a miraculous balancing act that requires the gifts of a consummate artist and charismatic entertainer, a poet and a storyteller, an actor and a philosopher. Or, more simply, it requires the gifts of a Rodney Gilfry. The young American baritone has the complete package, as he demonstrated Monday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts with pianist Grant Gershon.
Add to that list of requirements an architect's feel for structure and a playwright's flair for drama. Gilfry's enormously satisfying Anglo-French program had unforced originality and emotional range, as well as contrasting musical styles.
He began with a French Baroque group. From the first noble cry of "Soleil," in the Hymn to the Sun from Rameau's "Les Indes galantes," it was clear that this would be a memorable evening for text-attentive singing. In the ensuing patter of Rameau's "Tambourin," the sighs of LaGarde's "Musette" and the adamant basso cynicism of Charon's Air from Lully's "Alceste," Gilfry proved himself a master of vocal characterization.
Never a casual or unprepared musician, Gilfry seemed in exceptionally commanding form here, with his Carnegie Hall debut coming Friday. Five songs by Faure and Ravel's "Don Quichotte a Dulcine" completed the first half. The cohesion of Ravel's mini-drama allowed Gilfry greater scope, but the Faure five were also small worlds of perfectly calibrated expression, each spinning at different speeds on an axis of love.
Another local hero, Gershon knows well both the responsibilities and the opportunities of accompaniment. Seldom has the Ravel been punctuated with such fierce bite or have Faure songs been so tastefully matched to their singer in color and point.
Paul Bowles' wonderfully evocative "Blue Mountain Ballads" made an attractive alternative to the usual recital Americana, and the charms of John Duke's "Three Gothic Ballads" certainly did not seem faded in Gilfry's heroically poignant performance. He combines clarity with resonance to such a degree that the program omission of the English texts hardly mattered.
Gilfry flattered four innocuous songs by Ricky Ian Gordon to close the printed agenda. In encore, he offered Debussy's setting of Verlaine's "Green"--also one of Faure's texts--Ives' "Charley Rutledge" and Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here to Stay," dedicated to his wife.