Showing posts with label Countertenor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Countertenor. Show all posts

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Remembering Victims of Gun Violence Through Moving Spirituals Performance

By Christine Facciolo

Countertenor Augstine (Gus) Mercante offered some perspectives on his long — and sometimes complicated — relationship with the African American spiritual in the program notes of his March 31 concert, There's a Man Going 'Round: Remembering Victims of Gun Violence, as part of The Arts at Trinity series at Trinity Episcopal Church in Wilmington.

He first fell in love with the repertoire when at age 16 he auditioned for All-State Chorus. Burleigh’s Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child was the audition piece. Years later, he submitted the work to fill the English Art Song requirement for a voice competition and was shocked when one of the judges told him that white singers shouldn’t sing spirituals in a concert setting.

Countertenor Gus Mercante accompanied by pianist
Hiroko Yamazaki. Photo courtesy of Gus Mercante.
Fast forward to the summer of 2006. Mercante was studying at the Mozarteum when he got an invitation from internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry to sing for her in her apartment. After they sang for each other, he asked her if she though white people should be sing spirituals. She looked right at him and said: “Anyone with a soul can sing a spiritual.”

Mercante certainly has soul, plus a robust high male voice of unique strength and deliberate, rhapsodic lyricism and expression. Mercante does not just sing a song, he brings it to life. (Note: If you haven’t seen him perform a comic English opera with Brandywine Baroque, definitely put it on your to-do list.)

The program, dedicated to the victims of gun violence, opened on an appropriately somber and sorrowful note with two selections from Bach Cantatas: Wir mussen durch viel Trubsal and Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden.

Mercante raised the specter of death with a dynamic rendering of the Schubert Lied Der Tod und das Madchen, with dramatic vocal characterizations of Death and the Maiden.

Less dramatic, but equally powerful, were Faure’s setting of the Verlaine poem "Clair de lune,” Nocturne Op. 43, No. 2 — kudos to Mercante for including this much-neglected song — and Schubert’s Im Abendrot, all of which juxtaposed the melancholy of the characters with the beauty and grandeur of the moon and the sunset.

The first half of the concert wrapped up with two contemporary selections: the resigned simplicity of William Bolcom’s Waitin’ (from Cabaret Songs) and H. Leslie Adams’ Prayer (from Nightsongs) which Mercante delivered with maximum emotional impact through dynamic contrast and textual clarity.

The second half of the program, which was devoted to spirituals, opened with Mercante processing into the sanctuary singing the traditional Guide My Feet. The set included Burleigh’s Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, which sparked Mercante’s interest in the Negro spiritual. This set contained some very moving performances, notably a powerful rendering of the apocryphal There’s a Man Going ‘Round and Crucifixion, which nearly brought some audience members — including this one — to tears.

And if you closed your eyes, you might have sworn it was the late Marian Anderson singing Burleigh’s My Lord, What a Morning.

The concert concluded on a triumphant note with the glorious Ride On, King Jesus.

Mercante was ably supported by Hiroko Yamazaki at the piano, while Sherry Goodill and Marion Yager Hamermesh of the Hanover Dance Collective brought visual interest and kinetic energy to select songs.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Artist Profile: Countertenor Gus Mercante

Gus Mercante sings very high notes – and when he does you can feel the audience jerk awake wondering how a man can produce notes in the stratosphere normally reserved for altos and mezzosopranos.  Yet, the quality of upper notes in a countertenor are smoother than a soprano voice, more boyish and without that extra strain that can irritate the listener when an untrained soprano reaches a bit too high in her range.  The countertenor uses a trained upper range that is not a falsetto like Smokey Robinson’s voice (which I also love, by the way), but more like a pure and directed sound which many describe as ‘head voice’.  The trick is to make the transition from that upper range to the lower notes without changing the quality of the vocal production. 

When Gus sings his very high range, it seems as if his voice is landing downwards from a gentle height.  His rounded, well-controlled tones are exactly what has garnered him myriad awards.  He won the 2007 Austrian American Society prize, a 2009 Fulbright scholarship to Germany  which included performances with opera companies in Augsburg, Nurnberg and Munich.  

This week Gus will perform in the Tanglewood Music Festival – a summer training and performing school which has been used to launch giants of American music such as Leonard Bernstein.  Originally, Tanglwood was the site of summer concerts for the Boston Symphony under the baton of Serge Kousevitsky, and it has now grown to a full-time music center which attracts over 350,000 visitors and attendees each summer.  For Gus to perform in the American premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, conducted by the composer – one of Britain’s prominent musicians -  is quite a coup for our local talent. 

Fame won’t change Gus.  He is always helping others – making calls to organize musicians and delivering scores to be transposed, handing out programs at the Italian festival with the calm of any old volunteer – yet, minutes later, he is singing his heart out to give a startlingly passionate rendition of Di tanti palpiti from Rossini’s Tancredi . His voice soars and resounds – especially in such a reverberant church.  In spite of thunderous applause, Gus’s first reaction is to study what he could have done to improve, which is no doubt why he is so good.

When he is not studying or helping others organize concerts, Gus is an active contributor to charities and worthy causes.  He makes his music work for others with his organization Lifesongs with which he raises money for charities and individuals as well as community-centered projects. 

I encourage you to listen to Gus while he is still a local artist, because those days may be limited.