Baritones Unbound Live In Studio

ArtsEmerson Live In Studio

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During the month of October, ArtsEmerson is bringing Baritones UnBound: Celebrating the Uncommon Voice of the Common Man to the stage, an exploration of 300 years of musical history. The show consists of the talents of four men: vocalists Marc Kudisch, Jeff Matsey, and Ben Davis, along pianist Timothy Splain. Three-time Tony winner Marc Kudisch devised the show, which exhibits everything from Gregorian chants to Broadway standards to pop. Though this show performs music of the “Common Man” (a reference to the humble beginnings of most classic pieces today), these men are quite uncommon. Each of these men have many operatic, Broadway, and off-Broadway productions to their names, Kudisch’s most recent Broadway role being that of Franklin Heart in 9 to 5. Meanwhile Ben Davis has Broadway credits such as the 2006 revival of Les Miserables, La Boheme, and Thoroughly Modern Millie to his name. And at only 21 years of age, Jeff Matsey made his operatic stage debut as Marcello in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s La Boheme beside Luciano Pavarotti. Splain, co-creator, music director, and pianist for the show, has numerous credits Off-Broadway at the Lincoln Center, as well as with the Roundabout Theatre and Minetta Lane Theatre. By their experience alone, it is easy to tell that these men don’t take theater lightly. But the notable part is that they don’t take themselves so seriously that the performance is inaccessible. They still see themselves as common men.

To begin their live set in the studio, the group plunged into “Some Enchanted Evening,” a shining number from the 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific. Immediately, the chemistry between these men was apparent. Sharing the stage with other baritones (a large, somewhat commanding sound at times) can’t be an easy task. But Kudisch, Matsey and Davis stood in a circle, making eye contact and timing their entrances and exits flawlessly. “Some Enchanted Evening” is a powerful song, full of emotion and male power – with three men the force was palpable, yet as the song finished, the last line, “Once you have found her/ never let her go,” was so delicate and quiet, it was if only one man were singing. Silence rang in the studio for a split second before a break designed to answer a few questions for listeners, about the nature of the show and the content. The men were natural on-air personalities, riffing off of each other and possessing enormous amounts of knowledge about the history of the baritone. This is great, because as Kudisch was quick to clarify, “This is not us standing up there in tuxedos singing at you.” They bring the audience along for an active journey through history. “I will tell you in about two hours time you would learn more than you would have expected to learn,” he elaborated after the session was over. “There’s no test,” Matsey added, “and you’ll discover that it’s your shared history that you’ve shared with us. It’s your shared musical history, it’s not us telling you our history, and it’s really all of our history as spoken through our voice.”

To exemplify this, the group changed genres during with their second number, “It Was A Very Good Year,” originally composed by Ervin Drake in 1961 but later made famous by fellow baritone Frank Sinatra. The song’s verses were split to allow miniature solos for each of the vocalists, but as the song ended on the last verse, “And now I think of my life as vintage wine/ from fine old kegs/ from the brim to the dregs/ and it poured sweet and clear/ It was a very good year,” they all came in delicately for a reserved yet strong ending. To finish up the three-song set, the baritones performed “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” originally from the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. Many famous popular artists have also performed it since its release, from Elvis Presley to Shirley Bassey to Andy Williams. This is one of Davis’ favorite songs to perform because he believes it is central to the purpose of the show: “It’s classic for a reason, because it really speaks to the common man; what he goes through and what his ultimate dream is.”

When pianist Tim Splain was asked what his favorite song was, he said that it changed every day. “[The show] is completely all over the map stylistically,” he said. “We’re in Italian Opera for a while then we sing German Opera and then pop. The tunes change a little bit every time we play them. It stays incredibly fresh because it’s really the performers and [the audience] bringing themselves to the evening.” The three vocalists all nodded in agreement as this was explained.

Part of the show requires the audience to be engaged – Davis reminded that the show is all un-amplified which requires active listening on the audience’s part. “It brings a different dynamic to the whole night,” Davis said. Kudish summarized the goal perfectly by saying, “It invited everybody’s energy to connect. We invite people to come and present with us, because that’s what’s happening.”

By Madelyn Reese
Photo by Mary Kennedy

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