The young American contralto Gweneth Bean raised the rafters of the First United Methodist Church at her Community Concerts recital Sunday night. But despite its genuinely grand-operatic size, Bean does not use her voice as if a special effort for volume were the point.
Her every selection (Purcell and Mahler songs, arias from "Rinaldo" and "Samson et Dalila," spirituals, songs by Gershwin, Bernstein, Rodgers and Arlen) was characterized by richness and depth, powerful tone production, a consistent willingness to sing softly when appropriate, and a disarming simplicity and directness of delivery.
Although Bean evinces much less comfort at the top of her range than in its velvet basement and is rather short of breath, the justification for four Metropolitan Opera seasons (in a career only 6 years old) was distilled in her "Deep River." The sound could by itself draw tears.
There remain levels of profound expressivity--refined understanding in the Mahler repertory, and meaningful, idiomatic declamation of Handelian recitative--that as yet quite elude Bean and for which the appreciative and admiring listener still yearns.
But there is hope. Singers of similar backgrounds, values and voices who searched for those deep resources within and found them--Maureen Forrester, for instance--still can be heard and emulated. The steady, responsible nurture of Gweneth Bean's gifts toward the objective of mature artistry could only be a boon to a world starved for the rare combination she presents: a great voice and a big heart.
Pianist Levering Rothfuss was Bean's sympathetic accompanist.