Not Bass, Not Baritone, Davóne Tines Revels In A Register All His Own

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Davóne Tines performing at the Ojai Festival

PROFILE – Davóne Tines was a freshman at Fauquier High School in Warrenton, Va., when his grandfather, a retired Navy captain and choir director, was joking around with him, exaggerating opera-like syllables. Tines responded in operatic style, and his granddad said, as Tines remembers it, “Well, I think you have a voice.”

That he does. His range stretches more than three octaves, from low D to high E-flat. He is considered a bass-baritone, and today he is courted heavily by opera and musical theater companies in the U.S. and overseas. Tines, 34, says he is neither a bass nor a baritone, but a basso cantante, a bass with a high upper extension, as in falsetto, balanced by a booming lower register. He defies categories, even when it comes to his voice.

“It’s a broader conception of how to think about voice,” Tines said in a phone interview in late July from Vermont, where he was working on an experimental mixed-genre piece with the Cambridge, Mass.-based American Modern Opera Company. “It’s part of my saying who and what I am.”

Gloria Chien, co-artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Ore., was moved to tears by his voice when she heard him sing “Give Me Jesus.”

“We were all overwhelmed by the power of his voice,” said Chien, who hired Tines for the 2021 festival. “It’s visceral, it’s undeniable. But what he does with the high range of his voice is really remarkable. He is so comfortable up there, and he can do things that I’ve never heard before.”

Gloria Chien and Davóne Tines in concert at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Ore. (Photo by Tom Emerson)

After working with him this summer, Chien remarked, “He delivers his message in the most powerful way.”

His own person

Tines, who holds a master’s degree in vocal performance from The Juilliard School, also earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Harvard University. He is intent on saying who he is, choosing the music he sings, and being the political person he aspires to be as a gay black man. He prefers a “more flexible way of looking at things that I connect to or that fits me the best.”

On Aug. 31, he will premiere his 75-minute program titled Recital #1: Mass at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill., north of Chicago. Described on Tines’ website as “an exploration of the Mass woven through Western European, African American and 21st century traditions,” Recital #1: Mass was broadcast virtually by Vocal Arts DC earlier this year and filmed at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City.

Tines sang excerpts at the 2021 Chamber Music Northwest, but Ravinia will mark the program’s first full live performance. Chien described the CMNW performance as an illuminating addition to the festival’s programming, “especially during this time when we were all learning about each others’ voices, differences, ideas.”

Only Tines and pianist Adam Nielsen, partners in previous virtual Mass concerts, will be onstage for the Ravinia concert. If Tines is true to his edgy style, he’ll wear a fashion-forward dark suit, no socks, and probably a small gold cross around his neck. Singing onstage for an hour and 15 minutes does not daunt him. He’s used to it.

In Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains, he was onstage for two hours with a countertenor, and he sang “75 percent of the time,” Tines recalled. The opera premiered in 2016 at the Dutch National Opera under the direction of the influential opera- and theater-shaper Peter Sellars, who Tines acknowledges “discovered” him earlier at Juilliard.

The performance marked the beginning of the tsunami of international recognition for the opera singer. He has gone on to create and co-create his own pieces, including 2018’s “The Black Clown” based on a Langston Hughes’ poem; “Vigil,” dedicated to Breonna Taylor’s memory with Louisville Orchestra’s Teddy Abrams in October, 2020; and this Mass, among others.

A scene from Kaija Saariaho’s ‘Only the Sound Remains‘ with Davóne Tines at center

To further bolster his onstage confidence in pulling off long pieces, he sang the part of an escaped slave, which included a “huge aria,” as he called it, that unspooled for 7 minutes and 30 seconds in Matthew Aucoin’s 2015 Crossing, about Walt Whitman’s fictionalized Civil War experiences.

“I’ve gotten used to sustaining my energy. It is like taking one intense deep breath,” Tines said.

The Mass recital was Tines’ work in progress for four years. It is based on the Catholic Mass, though it goes further: It is an exploration of various religious traditions and motifs — African-American, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and European — shaped primarily by contemporary and early music. It features new works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, one of Tines’ favorites for what he calls “her open-ended approach” to music, and familiar spirituals rearranged by Tyshawn Sorey. A reconfigured “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” finds a place in this Mass, as does music of J.S. Bach. One section, the Credo, requires Tines to hit and hold one note for 15 seconds.

“I think because of his eclectic background and the different traditions from gospel, Renaissance choir, classical singing, and contemporary music — his voice is so versatile — he can transition from one to the other so seamlessly,” said Chien, who accompanied him in Portland for his Mass performance.

“I love playing with singers,” she said. “They breathe, they speak, they tell stories. I love just following their lines and letting them tell the story. We played through most rehearsals without any discussion. He sang each time differently with lots of freedom and I just let him be the storyteller.”

Chien speaks of the “deep thought and purpose” that Tines puts behind his message by way of his commanding voice and charismatic style. “What I love most about Davóne is, behind his work he wants to open conversations, break barriers, invite people in,” she said. “That’s his message, and he is doing it brilliantly with his gift. When he sings, people listen. When he speaks, people let their guards down. His mission is to connect people and to invite more conversations, and I think he is doing just that.”

Davóne Tines and the Brentano String Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest (Photo by Tom Emerson)

Choir, second nature

Tines is comfortable with liturgical music. He grew up singing in First Providence Baptist church choir in Orlean, Va., about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C., as did his entire family. “It was required,” said Tines, who was named Davóne for a bridge that his mother crossed one day. “She thought it was a unique and beautiful name,” he said, and she is “very particular” about the accent being in the right place and aiming in the correct direction.

Music was everywhere in his family. His grandfather conducted three choirs, his brother played cello, his mother sang, and for a long time Tines played violin, though he gave it up a few years ago. His music, church, and home life were consistently supportive and allowed him freedom to roam with his creative ideas, he said. No one forced him to play the violin. “I saw someone playing it on PBS when I was a kid and wanted to try.”

In describing Mass in the program notes for his Chamber Music Northwest performance this July, he wrote:

“Singing works like Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ followed by Lauryn Hill’s arrangement of ‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee’ is a reflection of my actual lived experience with liturgical music. It is comprised of all these things: early music, Bach, contemporary gospel, and also new music. When you put these seemingly different things together, and acknowledge the connections between them, you have to acknowledge that there’s something shared among these composers and among all people. This recital is an opportunity for me to marry all those flavors together and have that conversation in front of people.”

At the end, he wrote, “Present the darkness, and show the change into the light. That’s the entire recital right there.”

A belief in possibility

Mark Steinberg, a founding member and violinist in the nearly 30-year-old Brentano String Quartet, has performed with Tines a couple of times. They joined in “Amazing Grace” at the Ojai Music Festival in 2017, and this summer at CMNW, performing Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach.

Davóne Tines in ‘The Black Clown’ at the Mostly Mozart Festival (Photo by Richard Termine)

Steinberg spoke of Tines’ powerful voice as a gift that he has worked to develop and cultivate, like any great artist. “Davóne is a master at adapting his voice to the expression of the moment with great specificity, Steinberg said. “That is where his most important power lies, in teasing out the meaning of a passage and illuminating it. Yes, he is a remarkable singer. We need him most particularly because he knows why it is wonderful to be a great singer — so that he can use that to be a great artist and communicator, which he is, and to speak of truth and beauty.”