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Skid Row Is Alive With the Sound of a Baritone Recital

“It’s relaxing and spiritual,” said audience member Orville Young. “It’s a lift.”

“It’s beautiful, and I love it. I only wish he’d do . . . some of the ‘Three Bs’ (Beethoven, Brahms and Bach),” said out-of-work engineer Michael Bleizeffer, who said the recent recital by baritone Gordon Hawkins in the downtown Union Rescue Mission helped him forget his troubles.

Bleizeffer was one of nearly 400 men taking shelter from the cold and after only a few songs Hawkins’ recital of Italian arias, hymns and other selections drew a warm reception.

Hawkins, who has appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Opera, said he didn’t try to distinguish the group of homeless men from other audiences, but that he was merely a performer playing to an audience.

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“I honestly didn’t know what to expect, and they didn’t know what to expect either,” Hawkins said. “But they understand good music and bad music, so I went on that. . . . Then they started to understand and lean forward--it really makes you feel good.”

And lean forward they did. Although some seemed annoyed at having their sleep disturbed, the applause increased after each number.

“It’s very refreshing to bring in something from the outside,” said James Bryant, a talkative, smiling man. “I think they should bring in other musicians--something like this on Sundays would be nice.”

Fellow audience member Curtis Madlock stressed the impact of such events on mission regulars like himself. “These kind of events keep the guys here in a cultural mind,” he said. “They appreciate it, and so do I.”

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Accompanied by Los Angeles pianist Theodora Primes, Hawkins’ visit to the mission was part of a five-day, greater Los Angeles area Affiliate Artists Residency last week in which he gave 10 charity performances for such groups as the Veterans Administration in Westwood, several senior citizens’ homes (Hawkins referred to these visits as “love fests”), and elementary and high schools.

Hawkins, 30, a national winner in the 1986 Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the first-prize winner in the 1982 Beethoven Society Vocal Competition, began his 45-minute session by talking to the men about his beginnings as an aspiring baseball player. He was soon interrupted, however, by a request to “sing something good for us.”

The Beltsville, Md., resident was responsive to his audience throughout the performance, engaging in hand-slapping and handshaking with the men and encouraging them in conversation. Although he couldn’t grant one man’s request for “Ave Maria,” he offered such Italian selections as “Zaza” and such hymns as “The Lord’s Prayer” and “Amazing Grace.”

By far the biggest crowd-pleaser, however, was his finale, “Some Enchanted Evening,” which drew spontaneous applause and even a few bravos. After the performance, several of the men went up to Hawkins to express what appeared to be heartfelt thanks.

Ray McCann, the mission’s communications manager, said plans are in the works for a weekly series of similar shows, which he called informances --relaxed performances in which the artist would also explain his art. “The guys find it valuable,” McCann said. “At first they’re leery, but a lot of them are very interested.”

Hawkins’ performances, sponsored by the ARCO Foundation and the UCLA community outreach program Design for Sharing, were geared to acquaint those who might not otherwise be exposed to the performing arts with Hawkins’ brand of classical and popular music.

In all, more than 1,000 people in the Los Angeles Area heard Hawkins during his Affiliate Artists Residency.

Hawkins recent credits include Coppelius in “Les Contes d’Hoffman” with Wolf Trap Opera, Le Comte des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” with Boston Concert Opera, Nourabad in “Les Pecheurs de Perles” with Washington Concert Opera, and Ali in “L’Italiana in Algeri” with Washington Opera.

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