In a program of songs highlighting a wide range of American songwriting voices — black, gay, female, old, new — baritone Justin Austin showed off a powerful lyrical voice with dramatic flair at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan on Tuesday night.
Austin’s tone is deep and earthy, with a solidly stitched timbre that stands up to high-octane vocals. At the Armory he found operatic climaxes in most songs – his high notes were loud, shattering, tireless. And as he warmed up, his soft, breathy singing also began to convey feelings, though there was little color in his handling of the lyrics. (Suffering from allergies, he went backstage to blow his nose between most songs.)
It’s been a busy time in New York for Austin. Earlier this year he sang the lead role of rough worker George in Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera ‘Intimate Apparel’ at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, where his big hard sound overwhelmed the microphone he didn’t have. no need. In May, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Marcellus in Brett Dean’s “Hamlet,” projecting himself into that vast hall with youthful vigor.
But in the intimate setting of the Armory’s Officers’ Council Chamber recital, his built-for-power voice tended to disregard poetry, as in the opening group of nine Gordon arrangements of poems by Langston Hughes. Gordon’s rushing, exuberant melodies suit a lithe, soaring voice, but Austin’s swings like a hammer. Sometimes it worked: he walked his way to fame in the punishing conclusion of “Harlem Night Song,” with its ecstatic series of high notes.
It connected more deeply with the Hughes cycles of black composers Margaret Bonds (“Three Dream Portraits”) and Robert Owens (“Mortal Storm”). Bonds’ “Minstrel Man,” about an artist whose humanity is invisible to his audience, sparked a wry, subversive spirit in Austin. In “Dream Variation,” his voice flowed naturally, and “I, Too” was defiant — the sound of someone no longer wanting to wait for their moment in the sun when they have the strength to seize it for themselves.
There are times when Owens’ “Mortal Storm,” which featured the most pessimistic poems of the evening, sounds like a dense piano reduction of an opera score. “Jaime” is a 40-second storm, and “Faithful One” is thick with bass chords. The punchy triplets of “Genius Child” are reminiscent of Schubert’s “Erlkönig”, both harrowing fantasies of a murdered boy. It’s not a cycle for the faint of voice, and Austin excelled at it, even finding rhythmic playing and a touch of sultry romance. “Genius Child” ended with a devil’s turn in the invigorating line “Kill him – and let his soul run wild!”
Then, in a breathtaking turn, came Aaron Copland’s lullaby to a crying baby, “The Little Horses,” sung in a low, consoling voice. Its simple starlight inspired pianist Howard Watkins’ finest playing of the night, who often made the program’s varied styles seamless and unsubtle.
Towards the end, Austin sang spirituals and gospel with an unforced expressiveness that supported the mood of each track. Her encore single, “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me”, was delivered a cappella. Without a piano behind him, he rose to the occasion. There were ups and downs, thunder and screams – and beauty too.
Played Tuesday at the Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.