In review: Bryn Terfel at Koerner HallReview
It’s only fair you know before we begin that Bryn Terfel is one of my absolute favourite singers. Seriously. I’ve had these tickets for over a year. He’s an Elder God in my baritone pantheon, his headshot became my Facebook profile picture the last time I heard him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s somehow descended from Orpheus himself. I’m a fanboy. Hashtag fanboy. So with that out of the way…
On Sunday afternoon, Toronto was given a musical potpourri informally called “Bryn at 50” by the man himself. And what a delightful potpourri! Terfel immediately captured the entirety of Koerner Hall and held it right through to the third (!) encore. We had Keel’s Three Saltwater Ballads (a Bryn staple), excerpts from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, and Ibert’s Chansons de Don Quichotte. All wonderful, all gold-standard baritone rep. Placed alongside them were somewhat lesser performed works, like Schumann’s grand Belsatzar and spectacular Welsh songs by Meirion Williams, Bryan Davies and others. The final set, which failed to make the printed program, was pieces originally written for John Charles Thomas, that smooth and classy piece of American baritone. These included a sing-along Home on the Range, and The Green Eyed Dragon, the second best dragon song ever written (this is the first).
A singer in the truest sense of the word, Terfel’s voice is whatever he needs it to be, and his colour palette is very, very wide. At times commanding and strong, at times achingly soft and warm like a fireplace at Christmas. Whatever the music asked of him, he delivered. Aside from the odd high note that came off slightly sharp, things were technically perfect. Natalya Katyukova’s playing was clear as blue sky, and the synergy between her and Terfel was one of practiced confidence. I can’t recall a moment where things felt hesitant or out of control.
The repertoire choices proved (in this ginger’s eyes) that yes, you can program “simpler” or more typical repertoire alongside the uncommon, and still have an incredibly moving and respectable show. So long as you love whatever you’re performing, we as an audience will travel with you. And it’s easy to see that Bryn loves these pieces. He cherishes the music he’s singing and it radiates from him like he’s made of some sort of isotope. Artsongium? Musicium? Hm. I should email CERN.
For musicians, it was a masterclass not only in great singing and excellent playing, but in audience engagement. Terfel, the loveable scamp, managed his very enthusiastic listeners with a genial nature that’s normally reserved for cool uncles, panda bears, and Jimmy Fallon. He gave us an anecdote from his Guildhall years, more truth about the viral “Non abbiamo il soprano” video of Kaufmann and Gheorghiu, and other personable moments, peppering the afternoon with comfortable affability. A favourite moment: Early on in the first half, he remarked, “If you’d like to clap between each song, I’m very happy to hear it. But if you wait ‘till the end of the set, we’ll all get home a little earlier.” A wink and a smile and he had created an instant inside joke - with several hundred people - that persisted throughout the concert.
So yes. I’m a fanboy. Even more so now. But I am fanboy most for the fact that this was not a “performance” so much as two humans sharing good stories set to good music. This is, in my opinion, how recitals should be approached. Nothing was up on some pedestal. For two hours, all of us were old friends, smiling and laughing and listening.