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Bass-baritone Isherwood goes it alone

Bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood offers an engrossing solo recital for unaccompanied voice at LACMA.

May 02, 2003|Daniel Cariaga | Times Staff Writer

Variety aplenty -- considerably more than one might have anticipated -- materialized in Nicholas Isherwood's recital for unaccompanied solo voice Wednesday night on the three-part One at a Time series in Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

That variety, and the American bass-baritone's resourceful, ingratiating vocalism, caused a rare and wonderful result: complete attention and respectful silence from a rapt audience of connoisseurs and the curious. No coughing, no cell phones, no sotto voce conversations. Just attention.

Isherwood's canny programming held together what might have been a fragile idea. The usual LACMA 20th century suspects -- Gyorgy Kurtag, Sylvano Bussotti, Giacinto Scelsi, John Cage, Luciano Berio and Mauricio Kagel -- provided the raw material; the singer fleshed out their concepts.

The most inventive work, unsurprisingly, turned out to be Berio's "Sequenza III," an eight-minute workout for solo singer filled with quick notes, fast mouth moves, colorful oral noises and rapid-fire syllables. The most haunting and beautifully sung was Cage's "3 Songs for Voice and Closed Piano," wherein Isherwood accompanied himself with Cage's clever hand-hittings and -slappings on the keyboard lid.

One of the secrets of Isherwood's success is the legitimacy and range of his vocalism. He is a true bass-baritone with genuine resonance at both ends of the range; he colors the voice according to interpretive need and considers each composer individually.

Engrossing in different ways were Kurtag's brief "Holderlin Gesange," Bussotti's fragments of Blake and Proust in "Questo Fauno" and Scelsi's demanding "Wo Ma." Tedious in the extreme was Kagel's long-winded and reiterative -- with self-conscious blackouts and silly staging -- "Phonophonie," a relic of the absurdist 1960s.

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