The songs of old on the lips of the young

Photo by Matthew Timmermans

Performing on the National Arts Centre’s fourth stage is a privilege rarely given to students. On Feb. 5, Joel Allison, and accompanist Thomas Annand, were given that very privilege, a hopeful sign of promising careers ahead.

Allison, a third-year music student in the University of Ottawa’s vocal performance specialization, has performed leading roles in the past four operas produced by Opera Productions at the U of O, and in March he will return for a fifth time as Aeneas in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

His program began with an assortment of lieder by Franz Schubert and Carl Gottfried Loewe. The first, Nacht und Träume, set the atmosphere not only visually, as the lighting morphed from dim purple to bright blue, but musically as his singing began suspended in nothingness amidst the gentle twinkling of the stars illustrated by the piano accompaniment. With the piano’s quietly sung notes of such control and ease Allison blanketed the audience in Schubert’s night, although it was hindered by stagnancy and lack of resonant growth.

Allison evoked the sonorities of the German language to mesmerize the audience whether they were native speakers or not. Throughout the Loewe selections, his energy increased until it reached a climax in the last lied, Tom der Reimer. This German myth tells the story of Thomas the Rhymer who was carried off by the Elven Queen and returned with the gift of prophecy.

Allison’s face was riddled with excitement as he told the tale, looking directly at individual audience members for effect. Though his hand gestures increased the visual drama, their excessive use at times distracted from the delicate construction of text and music. In addition, his increasing dependence on the piano for physical support gnawed at the confident appearance he established at the beginning of the recital. Movement aside, he maintained his musical sensitivity by an understanding of the structure and phrasing to uniquely colour the lied with his voice.

The audience waited in anticipation of the recital’s largest section, Vaughan Williams’ the Songs of Travel. Performed in its entirety, the cycle takes up to 25 minutes, and is thus a challenge for any performer; one must sustain audience attention while evoking the kaleidoscopically changing moods of poetry and music.

From the beginning to the end of the Vagabond, Allison took great care to carefully emote words such as “white frost” with sincere musicality. He sang the last phrase sotto voce crescendoing to the final phrase, a promising beginning to the cycle. Yet he frequently returned to lean on the piano during songs which lacked the maturity and conviction only a singer with more experience could intuit.  Nevertheless he shone in songs he has regularly performed like The Roadside Fire, while those out his reach of vocal development, like In Dreams, were unfortunately missing the vulnerability and contrast begun with the Vagabond.

One of the most effective pieces sung by Allison was Whither Must I Wander. Before the recital he mentioned in an interview with John Avey, that he can relate to the “theme of happy days recalled (in the song because) the house in which I grew up has recently been sold.” Every listener saw and felt his forlorn anguish emerging in the final stanza.

The ambitious nature of the recital program unfortunately exhausted Allison and by the end of the recital his voice had diminished, though the audience generously applauded his vulnerability and conquest of the Songs of Travel.