Eric Owens and Lawrence Brownlee have taken their two-singer song recital to cities across the U.S., but it seems unlikely they’ve been met elsewhere by the same kind of hero’s welcome they received Friday night at the Kimmel Center.
Of course, no other city can lay claim to the pair the same way our town does. Brownlee is known for his Opera Philadelphia performances as Charlie Parker in Yardbird a few seasons ago and is now the company’s artistic adviser. Owens, who grew up in Mount Airy, has made a huge impression at the Metropolitan Opera as Alberich in Wagner’s Ring cycle, and he is now taking over the opera department at the Curtis Institute of Music with Danielle Orlando.
Duo recitals with singers are a rare phenomenon, though at Friday night’s concert, you had to wonder why. The program was designed with multiple entry points — opera, American song, spirituals — and the combination of it all drew a sold-out crowd that went well beyond the usual Philadelphia Chamber Music Society circle.
At the core were two superb artists, performing individually and together with the impressively versatile pianist Craig Terry. Owens and Brownlee are quite different singers, not just because of their respective vocal ranges but also for their qualities and values as musicians.
Brownlee is a tenor, and his bel canto moves and silver-sheen sound add up to his superpower. At one point, he held a high note so long that Owens jested by checking his watch-arm for the time. But even more impressive were the high C’s Brownlee picked out in “Ah! mes amis” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment — each one fully formed and popping with a delightful lift. Brownlee has an immediacy to his sound, a way of hugging the melodic line for full impact.
A bass-baritone is no less equipped to thrill, but Owens works with a different set of expressive brushstrokes. In “Au fond du temple saint,” the duet from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, Owens varied his sound several times to fit the text, his voice catching with a breathy emotion on a couple of lines in particular.
In Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti, Gounod, and Bizet, the two took advantage of the intimacy of the Perelman Theater to convey both detail and brilliance. It was the emotion, though, that grabbed me most: Brownlee’s touching way with the wordless parts of “All night, all day” in an arrangement by Damien Sneed. “Deep River” had a marvelous double meaning in its interpretation by Owens, his own deep voice wending its way through differing degrees of depth and colors.
The popular songs were an enjoyable dip into music of another character, particularly Vincent Youmans’ “Through the Years.” It’s a great tune, but these two made it greater, finding nuanced expressive devices to suggest layers of meaning beyond the merely sentimental.
Owens delivered a knockout with “Give Me Jesus,” shaped by a sophisticated range of emotion. He made his voice alive to so many different kinds of sounds and feelings that you wanted to cheer, yet you didn’t dare break the spell. If it wasn’t art song, I don’t know what is.