In a program of songs highlighting a wide variety of American compositional voices — black, gay, female, old, new — baritone Justin Austin performed a mighty lyrical voice with dramatic flair at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan on Tuesday night.
Austin’s tone is deep and earthy, with a solid stitched timbre that resists high-octane vocals. At the Armory, he found operatic climaxes in most of the songs – his high notes were strong, crushing, tireless. And as he warmed up, his breathing soft vocals also began to convey feeling, though there was little color in his handling of lyrics. (Suffering from allergies, he turned up on stage to blow his nose between most of the songs.)
This was a busy time in New York for Austin. Earlier this year, he sang the lead role of rough-and-tumble worker George in Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera “Intimate Apparel” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where his big, loud sound overwhelmed the microphone he didn’t need. In May, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Marcellus in Brett Dean’s “Hamlet,” projecting with youthful vigor into that spacious house.
But in the intimate recital setting of the Board of Officers Room in the Armory, his powerful voice tended to be rough about poetry, as in the opening group of nine Gordon settings of poems by Langston Hughes. Gordon’s hasty, exuberant melodies match a smooth voice that soars, but Austins swings like a hammer. Sometimes it worked: He rode a path to glory in the punishing conclusion of “Harlem Night Song,” with its ecstatic string of high notes.
He connected more deeply with Hughes cycles by the black composers Margaret Bonds (“Three Dream Portraits”) and Robert Owens (“Mortal Storm”). Bonds’ “Minstrel Man,” about an artist whose humanity is invisible to his audience, sparked a wry, subversive spirit in Austin. In “Dream Variation” his voice flowed naturally, and “I, Too” was defiant – the sound of someone no longer willing to wait for his moment in the sun when he has the strength to seize it for himself.
There are times when Owens’ “Mortal Storm,” which features the evening’s most pessimistic poems, sounds like a dense piano reduction of an opera score. “Jaime” is a 40 second storm and “Faithful One” is thick with bass chords. The pounding triplets of ‘Genius Child’ are reminiscent of Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’, both harrowing fantasies about a murdered boy. It’s not a cycle for the mentally ill, and Austin excelled at it, even finding rhythmic playfulness and a hint of sensual romance. “Genius Child” ended with a devilish ride in the invigorating line “Kill him – and let his soul run wild!”
Then, in a breathtaking twist, came Aaron Copland’s lullaby for a crying baby, “The Little Horses,” sung in muted, comforting tones. The simple starlight inspired the most beautiful playing of the evening by pianist Howard Watkins, who often made the diverse styles of the program sound homogeneous and insubstantial.
Towards the end, Austin sang spirituals and gospel with a casual expressiveness that supported the mood of each piece. His encore single, “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me”, was delivered a cappella. Without a piano behind him, he rose for the occasion. There were highs and lows, thunder and screams—and beauty, too.
Performed on Tuesday at the Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.