In Fresh NY Phil Series, A Countertenor Brings Zest Of Counterculture

The trans-genre artist Justin Vivian Bond and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performing with the New York Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — Countertenors are thick on the ground these days. No longer a musical curiosity, especially with the increasing popularity of Handel operas, a man who sings in a high register must offer more than vocal and musical excellence to distinguish himself from the competition. Anthony Roth Costanzo certainly proves his value both onstage and off with a series of imaginative responses to the moment.

Early in the pandemic, he dreamed up a series of socially distanced chamber-music pop-up concerts performed on a customized flatbed truck, dubbed The Bandwagon, which allowed members of the New York Philharmonic to play for neighborhood audiences all over town. As the Philharmonic’s artist in residence for the 2021-22 season, he has designed and is appearing in an array of presentations examining identity and diverse definitions of beauty.

Costanzo’s NY Phil residency is only part of his busy season, which includes Handel roles in Madrid, Boston, and New York, song recitals, and a reprise of the title role in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera in May. Earlier in January, he took part in Carnegie Hall’s SongStudio series of master classes for emerging singers. Costanzo’s probing imagination was in evidence as he conjured for each of five participants a single-word mantra representing a metaphor addressing both technical and interpretive facets, which helped each young artist discover their own “beauty within.”

Central to his Philharmonic residency were two mainstage concerts with the orchestra, part of a series called “Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within,” with each program featuring a commissioned world premiere. The first, performed in the Rose Theater over the last weekend in January, combined concert fare from the last hundred years with a freewheeling cabaret set from the last six months. The mix seemed unlikely on paper but offered a highly satisfying evening (seen Jan. 27).

Music director Jaap van Zweden conducting the New York Philharmonic at the Rose Theater.

Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No.1 (1986), commissioned by the Houston Symphony for its Fanfare Project and dedicated to Marin Alsop, was a bracing opener from one of the first American women to forge a solid career as a composer. The first of six fanfares “dedicated to women who take risks and are adventurous,” this short piece projected energy and hope tinted with apprehension in just over two minutes of alternating brass and percussion. It was disconcerting not to be able to see the players, who sat at the back of the stage behind dozens of empty chairs, but this staging made for a shorter transition to the next work.

The centerpiece of the first half introduced a young composer, Joel Thompson, whose own story fits nicely into the theme of self discovery: Born in the Bahamas in 1988 and raised and now based in Atlanta, Thompson pursued pre-med studies before succumbing to the lure of music. His best-known piece is a choral work, the 2015 Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Written as his private response to the shootings of unarmed Black men like Trayvon Martin and and Eric Garner, when he finally organized a performance, it won the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition. Thompson is that rare composition doctoral student who is paying his way through graduate school with composition commissions: His most recent was The Snowy Day, a children’s opera, which just premiered at Houston Grand Opera.

The Places We Leave, commissioned by the Philharmonic, sets three newly written poems by Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd U.S. poet laureate. A quiet meditation on discovering oneself by leaving the past behind, the moody work surrounded Costanzo’s pure lines with lush orchestration, waxing and waning so as not to overwhelm the delicate countertenor voice. Costanzo’s thoughtful delivery of the epigrammatic poetry drew a listener into the process of coming to understand how the past has created the narrator’s present. Thompson’s writing is natural and fresh. Trained as a choral conductor, he writes sensitively for the voice while making fluent use of orchestral color. This is definitely a talent to watch.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed Joel Thompson’s ‘The Places We Leave’ with the New York Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden.

The first half ended with Prokofiev’s sunny Symphony No. 1 (Classical), which showed off both the orchestra’s strengths and the hall’s weaknesses. The work’s formal order and extroverted energy offered an brisk contrast to the contemplative lines that had come before. Music director Jaap van Zweden kept a lid on the orchestra, whose sound easily could have overwhelmed ears in the 1,200-seat theater-in-the-round (I wore earplugs as the orchestra tuned). Tempos were careful, with almost comically detached phrasing; the orchestra gave the impression of a race car being driven at school zone speed. But it was a pleasure to sense the reserve power of the great ensemble.

The audience returned from intermission to a crammed stage, with the addition of a harp, extra percussion, a concert grand piano, and lead and rhythm guitars, ready for a set from Only An Octave Apart. This cabaret project created during the pandemic by Constanzo and the trans-genre artist Justin Vivian Bond, with direction by Zack Winokur, was inspired by a legendary 1976 Carol Burnett-Beverly Sills concert taped at the Met. Over 50 minutes the two artists wove together a highly eclectic mix of classical, operatic, and popular music — sometimes all at the same time. After a successful run in hipster Brooklyn last fall, the duo recorded an album whose release coincided with this trio of concerts. Nico Muhly’s orchestral arrangements were commissioned by the Philharmonic for these concerts.

Cabaret took over the concert hall as the band struck up entrance music for the two stars, who entered amid flashing lights (designed by John Torres) to cheers and applause. Bond’s leggy, bouffant-blond glamour contrasted starkly with Costanzo’s compact, restrained appearance; both rocked rhinestone accessories with panache — Bond in a slinky black gown, Costanzo in his shiny black suit. Bond’s raspy baritone, suggesting a chain-smoking chanteuse, blended unexpectedly well with the refined countertenor sound. Costanzo’s boyish enthusiasm provided a good-humored foil to Bond’s hilariously jaded, racy bon mots in the patter between songs.

Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo performing selections from their cabaret project, ‘Only an Octave Apart.’

Even in a concert hall and backed by a large orchestra, the relaxed intimacy of their rapport drew the audience in. The musical mixes, drawing on composers from Henry Purcell to Kate Bush, were singular: It’s unlikely that bel canto (Rossini’s “Non più mesta” from La Cenerentola) has ever been paired with bossa nova (Jobim’s “The Waters of March”). Even more improbable, but effective, was the mashup of the bouncy ’80s hit “Walk Like an Egyptian” with Phillip Glass’ Akhnaten, Costanzo’s exuberant, wordless Pharonic interjections punctuating the vaguely “Oriental” chorus as sung by Bond. Muhly’s wonderful orchestrations ranged in style from Nelson Riddle lush to spidery, impressionistic chamber accompaniments and to pounding bass-and-piano pop stylings. Van Zweden paced the proceedings with deft timing.

“I look different from the way I sound — how can I find truth in the dissonance between perception and expression?” wrote Costanzo in a program note. This show playfully probed that question, as the pair incorporated their contrasting talents and styles to create something fresh. The results were extravagantly yet offhandedly queer, musically sophisticated, and, above all, wildly entertaining.

The Authentic Selves series will continue into the spring with discussions and presentations throughout the city. The second concert in this series, Feb. 3 and 5, will feature Costanzo singing Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été and a world premiere by Gregory Spears, with poetry by Tracy K. Smith. For tickets go here.

The album Only An Octave Apart was released Jan. 28 by Decca.