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Ridin' High

February 26, 2008

Lucas Meachem sauntered onto the stage of Temple Emanu-El's Martin Meyer Sanctuary on Sunday as though walkin' into the High G Saloon. Swinging open wide the doors that separated him from everyone seated in the joint, he declared, "I'm Lucas. I'm from North Carolina, and I'm going to be singing some great songs tonight. I know you don't expect someone to start a recital like this, but I'm going to do what I can to change that …"
You can say that again. Ever since San Francisco Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald had told me, during an interview about the Schwabacher recital series, that she expected the 29-year-old baritone she dubs "Mr. Charm" to abandon formality and speak to the audience, I had been prepared for some sort of interaction. But this was something else, far closer to entertainment than what you might expect from a recital that included three of Dvořák's Zigeunermelodien; Poulenc's Chansons gaillardes; six of Schumann's 12 "Kerner" lieder, Op. 35 (aka Zwölf Lieder); and three of Copland's popular Old American Songs.

Any questions about classical commitment vanished as soon as the 2005 Adler Fellow settled down a bit and began to sing. "Reingestimmt die Saiten! Bursche tanz' im Kreise!" (The string is taut — young man turn, spin, twirl!), he hurled out to the audience with a powerful, dark voice tinged with danger. The song was wild and innocent, but the sound and presence invoked images of Faust, both Gounod's and Boito's.

Part of the reason for the disparity was the acoustics. As a vocal venue, Meyer Sanctuary is OK as long as a singer's voice is modulated and the basic sound not too bright. But in the case of a big, strapping baritone all charged up and ready to ride through music with a voice that can fill the Met, we've got a major problem. In this acoustic, Meachem's powerhouse instrument rang like crazy, bouncing off every hard surface and obscuring detail. Too much of the forte singing became loud and insistent. Meachem is one artist for whom Herbst Theatre's oppressive dryness might actually prove an asset.
In Search of Good Acoustics
In Dvořák's three Zigeunermelodien, despite some tenderness in "Als die alte Mutter mich noch lehrte singen" (Song my mother taught me), I found the venue-induced intensity irritating. (Others didn't, but I'm particularly attuned to acoustics.) Meachem, whose acting grew increasingly effective and endearing as the afternoon progressed, also seemed to be stalking the stage ominously, as if searching for his rightful place. Pianist/vocal coach Ji Young Lee, on the other hand, played with total assurance, complementing Meachem's frequently robust presentation with full, shining tone.

"These next songs are great, too," he proclaimed, before launching into a hilarious tale about his drive from North Carolina to the Eastman School of Music. Poulenc's Chansons gaillardes proved far more suited to his uncontainable personality, and both Meachem and the audience had a ball with them. How many artists would begin the drinking song "Chanson à boire" half collapsed on the piano, tottering about the stage, and altering voice and pronunciation accordingly? Meachem not only did that, but also sang a beautiful "Invocation aux Parques" (Invocation of the fates) and brought total confidence and huge reserves to the naughty "Couplets bachiques" (Bacchanal verses).

After surprising us with the first of three, totally out-of-the-blue, sweet falsetto high notes that he emitted during the recital, he briefly simulated what a hopeful virgin might do with a candle while waiting for the love of her life to appear. (You had to be there.) For the final song, Meachem abandoned artistic distance, stepping down from the stage to the lower elevation closer to the audience. In doing so, he unintentionally dashed hopes that, if future recitals were to be staged on that lower level, reverberation would be minimized. Only liberal use of tapestries or absorptive panels, or both, can ameliorate the sanctuary's serious sonic sabotage of well-intentioned singers.

Meachem indulged in two more stories during the recital. It was worth the price of admission to hear how he ended up borrowing a pair of shorts and sneakers (size 14 shoe) and shooting 90 minutes of basketball while awaiting the outcome of his Met Young Artist audition. Even better was the tale of his night of karaoke in Paris with tenor Paul Groves and new pal "Susie" Graham, and how the mezzo subsequently fibbed to get him hired as Simon Keenlyside's replacement in Chicago's production of Iphigénie en Tauride.
Potential as a Refined Recitalist
Oh yes, and he also sang. There were many lovely touches in the six Schumann lieder, enough to suggest that, with time and more willingness to modulate, Meachem may become a crackerjack recitalist. Highlights were the empty ending of "Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend" (Longing for the woodlands) and the trembling emotion, gorgeous falsetto, and unforced simplicity of "Stille Liebe" (Silent love). If only he hadn't overdone the tears of the final song, "Stille Tränen" (Silent tears), and ended with an abrupt diminuendo and blatantly artificial trembling.

Meachem then strode into more comfortable territory: American songs in American English. With his suit jacket unbuttoned and tie discarded, he lightened his voice for a perfect "Long Time Ago," whose final sweet diminuendo was gorgeous. He also did a great, great job on "Ching-a-Ring Chaw." The strong, solid ending of "At the River" was simply sensational, and "I Bought Me a Cat" delightfully comic. Responding to cheers with a charming "I hear ya," Meachem and his ever-attentive accompanist threw us an lively, droll encore, the song "Me!," from Beauty and the Beast. Their delightful exchanges — his sung, hers spoken — could have seduced everyone short of Nurse Ratchett and Mike Huckabee's fundamentalist cheering squad.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.