Basses have it rough. They produce sonorous, sometimes cranium-rattling sounds, but are often afflicted with timbral monotony. And they must work harder than their higher-voiced colleagues to make their words intelligible. Not surprisingly, successful bass recitalists are few.
Which makes Eric Owens' Wednesday evening performance at the Schubert Club all the more memorable. (Although billed as a bass baritone, he is, to my ear, simply a bass with a well-developed upper register.) Born and trained in Philadelphia, Owens knows how to lighten and color his voice. His diction is clear, but never fussy; he commands both the hard-edged declamation of the great German singers and the more flowing manner of the French and Italians. Most important, his musicmaking seems to draw from a deep well of lived experience, not all of it pleasant.
Owens' Vienna-made first half began with two concert arias by Mozart -- reminders that the singer spends most of his time in opera houses, including the Met (where Bradley Moore, his superb pianist, is on the conducting staff). Then came a plunge into the rarefied world of the German art song, beginning with the spectral shudder of Hugo Wolf's "Three Songs on Poems by Michelangelo" and ending with Brahms' defiant "Of Eternal Love." In the concluding stanzas of the latter song, the singer is asked to impersonate a young girl. This is no small challenge for a dark-toned bass, but Owens rose to it in daring and effective fashion.
The more beguiling second half offered music about music by a trio of Englishmen -- John Ireland, Roger Quilter and Edward Elgar -- and by the oft-underestimated Camille Saint-Saëns, whose "Violins at Evening," on a wildly erotic poem by the fascinating Anna de Noailles (granddaughter of a Turkish pasha, friend of Proust), ranks as a discovery. Steven Copes, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's concertmaster, was the fervid fiddler.
Two small points. First: Owens has imposing new-music credentials. Couldn't he have programmed at least one piece by a living composer? And second: For too much of his recital, Owens was nearly immobile, his arms hanging inexpressively at his sides. Yet his gestures, when he allowed them, were eloquent. (He can also speak charmingly to his audience, but chose not to until he reached his encores.) He'd do well to remember that the singing voice is not the recitalist's only instrument.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.