Baritone embraces 'Death'


You've pigged out on a Thanksgiving feast, savored the company of family and friends, and now you want to keep the good mood going. So you look around for a concert to cap the week and spot the perfect music for holiday listening - Songs and Dances of Death.

All right, maybe it's not the most obvious post-Thanksgiving treat, but the prospect of hearing that work sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky should make it far more appetizing. The Siberian-born baritone, who makes his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut - his Baltimore debut, period - performing these not exactly uplifting songs by Modest Mussorgsky, has a way of lighting up a concert hall just by walking onstage.

Since winning the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, he has been perking up ears with his unusually creamy, burnished voice and turning heads with his shock of prematurely silver hair and sultry looks.

Shrieking groupies, inclusion in People magazine's "50 most beautiful people in the world" spread in 1991, a publicist's dream of press blurbs ("sex on a stick," "heartthrob of the opera world") - are all part of the Hvorostovsky story.

At 40, he still has his devoted fans and exotic matinee idol profile. More importantly, he still has his vocal powers, which are well suited to this Mussorgsky opus.

"Those songs will certainly be very well rehearsed," the baritone says with a laugh from New York, where he just performed them with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center and Long Island University. The guest conductor for those four concerts was Yuri Temirkanov, who will be back on his BSO podium this weekend.

"I recently sang these songs with Maestro Temirkanov in Scandinavia, too," Hvorostovsky says in his mostly Russian, slightly British accent (he lives in London with his Italian wife). "It has been wonderful working with him for the first time."

Temirkanov, who will also lead the BSO in Shostakovich's intense Symphony No. 10 on this weekend's program, calls the baritone "one of the most amazing talents of our time.

"Not only does he have an incredible voice," the conductor says, through a translator, "but he is an intelligent and inquisitive artist. He is not just singing his words; he understands them. It is a pleasure working with him; he is flexible and open to suggestions."

The singer was relieved to find that Temirkanov, too, was open to suggestions.

"I begged him to transpose the fourth song down a semi-tone," Hvorostovsky says. "It is so, so high. It can be awkward for the voice. But now I'm not having any problems with the songs. I still don't think I'm fully able to do them justice 100 percent; you have to be more grown and experienced for that. It is all about dying and people dealing with death."

With vivid texts by a poet friend of Mussorgsky's, Count Golenishchev-Kutusov, the four items that make up Songs and Dances of Death create a grim but gripping experience.

"There are no works in Russian poetry more frightening," says Temirkanov. "And Mussorgsky reproduced exactly the horrifying atmosphere and the meaning of those songs in his music."

In the first song, a mother tries to calm her sick child as Death comes knocking; in the second, he claims a fair maiden with a serenade; in the third, he ensnares a drunken peasant with a dance through the nighttime snow; in the last, the proud Reaper surveys a body-strewn field of battle.

"The music and poetry are really weird, very scary, but truthful," Hvorostovsky says. "The language of this music is dark. There is no escape from it.

"It is very connected to the time we're all living in right now, with wars, one after another. We must remember how tragic and incredibly unfair it is to lose a human life. Human life is like an endless ocean, but we're losing thousands and millions of human lives - just like that. These songs bring all of this closer to our minds, make us think of what we are living for and what we are doing to ourselves."

Although he sings Songs and Dances of Death brilliantly, and although he is justly celebrated for such Russian operatic roles as the title one in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Prince Andrei in Prokofiev's War and Peace, Hvorostovsky's natural vocal instincts actually lie elsewhere. "My voice was created for Italian music," he says.

Recently released collections of Verdi arias and traditional Neapolitan songs demonstrate his point. It would be hard to find a baritone today who can fill out Verdi's melodic lines more vibrantly or belt out 'O sole mio more persuasively than Hvorostovsky. Triumphs in Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and I Masnadieri have whetted the public's appetite for more Verdi from Hvorostovsky. He obliges with Un Ballo in Maschera in Chicago this winter.

"Gradually my voice is getting heavier, especially as I do more Verdi roles," he says. "I'm moving toward more and more dramatic Verdian repertoire."

So far, any deepening of the voice has not taken away from the intrinsic, velvety beauty of the instrument. (Considering he spent his teen years singing in a Russian rock band, Hvorostovsky obviously has a knack for husbanding vocal resources.)

The baritone is not about to limit himself musically. He still makes room for Mozart and Gounod, and hasn't ruled out a little Wagner one day. "I should definitely try Tannhauser, but I can wait another 10 or 20 years," he says with another laugh.

And that's just for the opera stage. For recital programs, he has already embraced Mahler songs and will soon add more German songs by Hugo Wolf ("This is very new for me and very exciting"). And he's working on a group of songs by French composer Henri Duparc.

He is open to contemporary music, too. He has championed, on disc and in recital, an important song cycle, Russia Cast Adrift, by Georgi Sviradov. And he sang the premiere of Giya Kancheli's Don't Grieve with the San Francisco Symphony last spring ("It's an amazing piece; I am really keen to perform it many more times").

What makes Hvorostovsky so distinctive, of course, is not just what he sings, but how. In addition to the coloring of the voice, there is the matter of style. It comes as no surprise that Hvorostovsky is a fan of olden-day singers, whose invaluable stylistic legacy was preserved on the earliest phonograph records.

"That was part of my studying," he says. "You have to be linked to the historical schools of singing, the previous masters. Without that linking you might find yourself headless.

"I am also very curious to listen to young singers and other musicians today. It's all part of studying, and you have to train yourself every day. If you start feeling satisfied with yourself, it is the beginning of the end."


What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and conductor Yuri Temirkanov

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow

Admission: $26 to $72

Call: 410-783-8000

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