Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Perfectionist: Herb Beattie at First Christian Church

One moment at Herb Beattie’s Sunday afternoon performance perfectly illustrated why the former New York City Opera bass is one of the region’s vocal and artistic role-models.

Beattie had told me earlier that his greatest worry about the program was the sheer stamina it required. But when he felt he didn’t do justice to the opening piece — Henry Purcell’s “Arise, ye subterranean winds” — how did he respond?

He repeated it. And while the first performance had you thinking, “that’s awfully good for an 80-year-old,” the second, slightly faster performance had you thinking merely, “that’s awfully good.”

As much as his incredible voice, it’s this unwavering ambition in the service of quality that makes Beattie such a special performer.

And the voice remains incredible. The low register isn’t as authoritative as it once was, but for every mediocre note there were 10 great notes. The tone still floats and the richness is still there. And Beattie’s theatrical sense could carry a lot of material without any voice at all.

The remainder of the program showed off more facets of Beattie’s talent than any single operatic role ever could — from world-class Gilbert and Sullivan to not-quite-idiomatic-but-very-enjoyable Jerome Kern. A set of four Schubert songs — in which accompanist Carol Wilson played especially beautifully — was deeply moving.

The crowd was, by recital standards, huge — filling the main floor and spilling over into the balcony. “I see a lot of bridge players here,” said a man in front of me, so part of this was probably due to the organizational skills of Beattie’s bridge-playing wife, Laurie.

But I also saw a lot of musicians, especially singers. They know what Beattie can do.


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