Bridges’ recital at the Y roves far and wide, including Lopez premiere

Fri Dec 02, 2022 at 2:47 pm
J’Nai Bridges performed a recital Thursday night at 92Y. Photo: Dario Acosta

A funny thing happened to mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges on her way to opera stardom. Two things, actually, and not funny at all.

The pandemic caused a flurry of cancelled engagements, including a planned role debut at the Metropolitan Opera in her signature role of Carmen. (She had made her bow there in 2019 as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, which brought glowing reviews and a Grammy-winning recording.)  And the murder of a black man in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide dialogue on the status of black people in America, in which Bridges actively participated, organizing a panel of arts leaders to address the subject in her own field.

 The singer’s recital at the 92nd Street Y Thursday night—which included the world premiere of a 92Y commission, Jimmy López Bellido’s Airs for Mother for mezzo-soprano and string quartet—looked at her art from both sides now: a touch of the opera diva, and more than a little of the advocate for black and Latino lives in classical music. It was also a pleasure to listen to, from end to end.

 A diva must of course have a smashing gown, and Bridges took the stage in a sparkling gold number that subtly recalled her initial Met triumph with its Egyptian-looking broad semicircular collar.

The age-old tradition of black opera singers bracketing their recital programs with spirituals was observed here, but with contemporary flair. In an arrangement uncredited in the program, Bridges and pianist Mark Markham began “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” low and pianissimo, like a distant memory, then gradually built it to a triumphant forte finish. The diva was in the building.

Later the concise program closed with John Carter’s Cantata, composed for Leontyne Price, a work whose elaborations of spirituals went far beyond the typical concert arrangements of old.

In between, black and Latin composers held the stage, from Carlos Simon’s vibrant Prayer (Gather Up) to Manuel de Falla’s vignettes of everyday life and love in Seven Popular Spanish Songs.

The Simon piece, to a poem by Langston Hughes beseeching God to lift up the world’s dispossessed, ebbed and flowed dramatically, as Bridges let her rich-toned voice soar over piano tremolos. In later pages Markham, an energetic and engaged partner all evening, dialogued with her line for line.

 Bridges’s instrument is a wonder, dark and smooth and uniform in timbre from its smoky lows to its lusty highs. Combined with an easy but arresting stage presence, it left no doubt about this singer’s star power.

The López premiere was preceded by “Santa Rosa de Lima,” an aria from the Peruvian-American composer’s opera Bel Canto. In the speech-like scansion and lifting vocal line that has made López’s music a favorite with singers, Bridges reprised a role she created in the 2015 Chicago Lyric Opera premiere, passionately depicting a young guerilla’s conflict between love and duty as she prayed for guidance to St. Rose, Peru’s patron saint. Markham’s piano subtly echoed the vocal line and stirred up some Chopinesque drama in the interludes.

 López has described the four movements of Airs for Mother as “a deep meditation on my mother’s passage into the afterlife.” His music and self-written English text did indeed reach deep into a child’s emotions, in childhood itself and later as an adult. The Catalyst Quartet provided intricate and colorful support for Bridges as she sang the lucid, tender texts.

The first movement, “Every Second,” recalled how the composer’s mother protected her children despite her own sorrows, assuring them “a world / full of wonder, hope, joy!”  The quartet bubbled under the singer, pizzicato and staccato, and played imitative tag in the interludes.

 “Your Gaze” alternated intimate moments with mother and the excitement of guests arriving (rapid string-crossing in the quartet), ending forte as the singer exulted in mother’s full attention once again. In contrast, “Barren” lamented mother’s fading life in jerky, dissonant lines, then concluded with quiet determination to preserve her life in the poet’s memory.

The closing movement, “It Is Time,” saw mother off on her journey with sighing phrases in the quartet and gentle duets between singer and cello. Singer Bridges sustained the soft vocal line despite its many hesitations and pauses, imagining an afterlife beyond sorrow or worry, intoning “Love is the one thing that matters,” as the music evaporated with a tenuous vibration of string harmonics.

 A timely intermission allowed one to reflect on López’s poetic insights before leaping into Falla’s colorful collection of village scenes. Pianist Markham and singer Bridges drew out an aching Spanish rubato in perfect sync, whether in the sarcastic “Seguidilla murciana,” the mournful “Asturiana,” the spirited “Jota” (to a twirly tune famous from The Three-Cornered Hat), or the fierce closing “Polo.” It would be hard to imagine these gem-like songs more vividly characterized.

With Baroque-style movement titles like Prelude, Recitative, and Air, Carter’s Cantata did put on airs a bit, but its five movements enlivened the old genre of spiritual arrangement with vocal extensions and brilliant piano writing. The Prelude, a brief piano solo in flowing chords, led directly to the Rondo based on “Peter Go Ring Dem Bells,” with the singer letting fly exuberantly over a clangor of tinkling and resounding piano chords.

Bridges turned partly away from the audience, singing the desolate Recitative, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” almost into the piano, to heartwrenching effect. The anthem-like Air, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” began prayerfully, but swelled in later verses to blossom out forte in the singer’s upper range.

The aptly-titled Toccata, “Ride On King Jesus,” sent Markham on a nonstop gallop notable not only for the pianist’s digital prowess but for his lightning right arm, flicking up to turn pages seemingly without missing a note. Bridges “rode” thrillingly over this din, and pointed appreciatively at her partner as she held her last high note and he crashed the final chords. After all, a diva is generous to those around her—and has a big finish.

Just when one was dreaming of hearing this singer as Carmen, she treated the audience to a single encore: a self-possessed, sultry rendition of that opera’s famous “Habanera.”

The 92nd Street Y presents Caroline Shaw, vocals, and So Percussion performing “Let the Soil Play its Simple Part,” 7:30 p.m., Feb. 4, 2023.

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