A splendid homecoming

Eric Owens, in a break from Wagner at the Met, sang subtler music here.

Performing in the more intimate Perelman Theater gave Eric Owens the option of singing quietly, and the acoustic enhanced his upper range.

At the Metropolitan Opera, Eric Owens has the voice of an angry Wagnerian - namely, evil Alberich in Wagner's "Ring" cycle - though back home in a Tuesday recital presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, his soul belonged to smaller, subtler art songs, as it has so often over the years.

The program contained some of Owens' repertoire standbys - Hugo Wolf's darker-than-dark Michelangelo Lieder and Maurice Ravel's crowd-pleasing Don Quichotte à Dulcinée - which he has sung under circumstances so low-profile as to not be worth the considerable preparation.

But profile was not lacking Tuesday when Owens faced a full Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center and a welcome-home ovation that greeted his entrance. "It might not be good," he warned quietly.

Good, it wasn't. Great was more like it, showing Owens on new levels of imagination and resourcefulness.

Civic pride assured that the event would be a success - Owens is entirely a product of Philadelphia's music-education institutions - and was needed to sell the program's uncompromisingly bleak first half. In what the bass-baritone has cheerfully called his "wrist-slashing" concerts, he portrayed one of civilization's great artists in the Wolf Michelangelo songs, raging about the depths of emotional deprivation that come with great achievements.

Four rarely heard Robert Schumann songs were uncharacteristically gothic, among them "Mother's Dream" (Op. 40, No. 2), which ends with ravens plotting to eat a newborn baby. Owens moved closer to the audience with a voice all the more threatening for being scaled down to nearly nothing.

A trio of almost-never-heard Franz Schubert songs had texts by Schiller and Goethe but revealed the pulp-fiction streak in the composer's more melodramatic, balladlike songs. Again, Owens used sotto voce at the end of "Journey to Hades" in asking when the horrors of hell will end.

The Debussy songs that began the second half seemed least likely to succeed; these airy, light songs probably should be off-limits to all Wagnerians. Yet the performances were the best of the evening - with equal credit going to Warren Jones' fine-shaded pianism. Owens scaled back his voice so much that his tone (still alluring at a pianissimo) stood behind the French text. Besides being idiomatic, Owens' articulation was such that he seemed to be speaking directly through the song. No curatorial objectivity here. He inhabited what he sang.

Not everything was wonderful. Ravel's Don Quichotte songs lay in a part of his voice that made a clean vocal line hard to achieve. Richard Wagner's utterly obscure 1840 song "Les deux grenadiers" was notable for the Heinrich Heine antiwar version, but the music bordered on pedestrian. But one of the encores, Henry Purcell's fragile "Music for a While," had Owens navigating the composer's idiosyncratic splintered vocal line with expressive comprehension rarely heard in the early-music community.

At all points, hearing the Owens voice in close proximity in the Perelman Theater was a thrill in itself, not just because he had the option to sing quietly, but because the acoustic enhanced his upper range - which is where his unique vocal personality lives.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.