New York City – Joshua Hopkins & J. J. Penna, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall 11/3/06

The talented young Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins made an impressive showing at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on November 3. Hopkins, who possesses easy with nature-themed imagery. The most compelling of these made up a set of eight songs called South of North, composed by Canadian Saul Irving Glick on texts by
his countryman Richard Outram, which were, in turn, based on paintings of the Canadian landscape by Thoreau McDonald. Despite some occasionally treacherous
vocal writing, these songs have an appealingly raw vitality, and Hopkins infused them with a deep personal connection and some really exciting singing. He was
particularly fine in the atonal patter of “Stripe,” the pointillistic “Windmill” and the syncopated undulations of “Vane.”

Pianist J. J. Penna, who played with gracefully articulated tone throughout the evening, deserves special kudos for his cascades, roulades and paint-drops, over
which Hopkins spun his present, straightforward sound. One could see Hopkins seeing the paintings and experiencing the landscapes, and his point of view and
personality shone through clearly. Unfortunately, that kind of immediacy and attention to subtext was lacking elsewhere on the program, despite some rich,
sensitive singing. Hopkins seemed less connected to the abstruse, image-bedecked texts of four Schubert songs about flowers, as if he hadn’t taken that extra
step to personalize them. Thus, in “Der Neugierige” (The Questioner) the questions were more rhetorical than urgently posed, and “Trockne Blumen” lacked
real despair. He showed a bit more emotional breadth in Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24, but for the most part, it was difficult to gauge the mood of the songs
without referring to the printed texts. The meaty middle of Hopkins’s voice is unforced and smooth, but he had some difficulty in the upper part of his range,
when the sound often sounded constrained or under pitch. He was also somewhat stiff physically, and although he brought a chair onstage for Ravel’s Don
Quichotte à Dulcinée, it was hard to see why, as it didn’t seem to relax him in any noticeable way. He infused the “Chanson à boire” with a vocally inebriated
swing, but his physical demonstrations of drunknenness seemed forced. That said, Hopkins does have an affinity for Ravel (even if his French is a bit studied),
and he gave perfectly wry and well-characterized readings of the beasts in Histoires Naturelles; I admired his peacock especially.

Quibbles aside, Hopkins remains a young singer to watch. His natural vocal gifts are already very much in evidence, even if the rest of the package is not yet
fully designed.