Baritone brings power, immediacy to Schubert’s winter journey with Da Camera of Houston

Tue Oct 24, 2017 at 1:26 pm
By Steven Brown

Baritone Tyler Duncan performed Schubert’s “Winterreise” with Da Camera of Houston Monday night at the Menil Collection.

The protagonist of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise may be the most despondent character in all classical music. Rejected in love, he abandons the town where his heartbreak took place, trudging through a winter landscape whose desolation mirrors his feelings. By the end of the 24-song cycle, he has neither chosen a destination nor found solace.

Why join him on such a trek? Because Schubert sweeps you up in it. He creates an arresting picture of the lovelorn youth’s emotional world: the bitterness; the sting of pleasant memories; the anger; the fleeting glow of illusory peace; the loneliness.

Baritone Tyler Duncan conjured up that world powerfully Monday night at the Menil Collection, when he performed Winterreise for Da Camera of Houston with the group’s artistic director, pianist Sarah Rothenberg.

His voice encompassed gravity, mellowness, full-throated vehemence and an occasional ghostly whisper. At times, Duncan sang with such naturalness and ease that the music came across as directly as if he had been speaking.

When Schubert’s trademark lyricism emerged, Duncan’s smoothness and warmth contrasted vividly with the more forceful tones that often prevailed. Yet when the music’s emotions ran hottest, Duncan’s voice flowed vibrantly, making the outpourings all the more compelling.

The first stanzas of the opening song, “Gute Nacht,” emerged simply, as if Duncan were simply telling a story. But at the mention of the stray dogs along the path, the first tinge of bitterness came into his voice. And Duncan soon immersed himself in the songs’ intensity and shifting moods.

In a a couple of songs, such as “Mut!” Duncan made sheer force predominate. But more often, he savored the songs’ swings between brooding and explosiveness. As the afflicted youth envisioned his tears falling onto the snow in “Wasserflut,” Duncan’s voice rose from introspection to outcry in the two roaming phrases that conveyed the words, “its cold flakes greedily absorb my burning pain.”

The famous “Der Lindenbaum” was one of many songs in which Duncan used his lyrical finesse to heighten the contrast between the protagonist’s memories or dreams and his harsh reality. Yet some of the most arresting moments came when Duncan put singing almost in the background.

In “Die Krähe,” addressing an ominous crow lingering above, Duncan began by gazing up and delivering the music as if he were simply talking to a companion. The final setting “Der Leiermann,” an encounter with an aged organ-grinder, unfolded chillingly because Duncan delivered it in such quiet, haunting phrases.

Then a crescendo gave the last moments a surge of intensity, as if the youth were suddenly being gripped by his kinship with with the poor loner.

Duncan intensified Schubert’s storytelling throughout by reflecting the songs’ emotions in his stage demeanor. When the youth thought back to his sweetheart, Duncan’s eyes narrowed spitefully. In the sharpest spells of anger, he bent over like someone in agony. The notion of serenity in a grave brought a hint of a smile. As the final song described the organ-grinder, Duncan’s head tilted sideways, as anyone’s might when they encounter an odd character.

Rothenberg complemented Duncan all the way. She established the walking pace that helped some songs set their scenes, and her playing helped created the churning restlessness of some songs and the starkness of others. Yet she never pulled the sonic spotlight away from the vocalist

Winterreise will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Menil Collection. 713-524-5050;

One Response to “Baritone brings power, immediacy to Schubert’s winter journey with Da Camera of Houston”

  1. Posted Oct 25, 2017 at 11:58 am by Joel Luks

    Spot on. Love this description! “His voice encompassed gravity, mellowness, full-throated vehemence and an occasional ghostly whisper.” Agreed 100%.

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