Tines’ American Songs Lift Theme Of ‘Truths’ At 60th Britt Music Fest

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Bass-baritone Davóne Tines was soloist with the Britt Festival Orchestra under Teddy Abrahms. (Photo by Lance Gallo)

JACKSONVILLE, Ore. — With a voice that can lift you up and carry you heavenward, Davóne Tines created an emotional journey in a cycle of American songs at the Britt Music & Arts Festival on June 24. Tines’ mesmerizing performances with conductor Teddy Abrams and the Britt Festival Orchestra were complemented by a spellbinding Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. That capped off the “Truths Be Told” program with a glimmer of hope for the future — an excellent perspective for the festival, which is celebrating its 60th year.

The Britt Music & Arts Festival has flourished since its humble beginnings in 1963, when Portland Symphony (now Oregon Symphony) trombonist John Trudeau, inspired by his experience at Tanglewood, assembled an orchestra on a plywood stage strung with tin-can lights. Trudeau served as the festival’s music director from 1963 to 1987. James DePreist took over from 1988 to 1992, and Peter Bay held the position from 1993 to 2013. Abrams began his tenure in 2014, when he also took the helm at the Louisville Orchestra.

Taking place on a hillside that belonged to the estate of pioneer photographer and horticulturist Peter Britt, the festival has been enhanced with a beautiful stage, wooden benches, and a state-of-the-art sound system. Throughout the summer, it accommodates up to 2,500 people for bluegrass, rock and roll, country, crossover, alternative, and other types of popular events.

Under Abrams’ influence, the festival has ventured into new music, including a world premiere of Sebastian Chang’s piano concerto, The Empress, and the West Coast premiere of Dafnis Prieto’s Tentación, which the festival co-commissioned with the Louisville Orchestra and the New World Symphony. Its Juneteenth celebration featured works by Valerie Coleman, Tyshawn Sorey, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Adolphus Hailstork, and Julius Eastman.

Tines sang works by Samuel Barber, Caroline Shaw, and others with the Britt Festival Orchestra. (Lance Gallo)

Using the theme of “Reflection and Prayers,” Tines opened the concert with Dover Beach, Samuel Barber’s striking setting of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem. Tines’ rich and resonant baritone, in tandem with the orchestral strings, conveyed a solitary, edgy, and ominous mood, finishing the piece off with the haunting line, “where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Caroline Shaw’s By and By consists of a quartet of folk songs that express the desire to get to heaven. Accompanied by plucked and strummed strings, Tines deftly struck a balance between certainty and uncertainty with “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” In “Angel Band,” Tines was escorted by a skittering of strings and an occasional chordal ray. “O Death” — with its depiction of someone on his deathbed pleading with the grim reaper for another year — was absolutely riveting because of Tines’ dramatic delivery and the knocking sounds that the strings created. 

Some relief was brought to bear during “I’ll Fly Away,” which Tines delivered in an improvisational, gospel-like style that climaxed with his falsetto gliding smoothly into the stratosphere. Concertmaster Ignace Jang then intoned a sonic wisp that vanished upward. Carlos Simon’s arrangement of “Angels in Heaven” offered a dark-hued atmosphere that lightened a bit as Tines encouraged the audience to sing along to the words “The angels in Heaven done signed my name.” He topped it off with astounding high notes.

Teddy Abrams

VIGIL, a collaboration that involved Tines, Igee Dieudonné, and Matthew Aucoin, was written in response to the tragic death of Breonna Taylor. A sprinkling of star-like tones from the piano graced its inspirational words “Where there is darkness we’ll bring light,” giving the music a beautiful, shimmering quality.

Thunderous applause and cheering brought Tines back to center stage several times. He responded with a moving, a cappella encore of James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

In the second half of the program, Abrams and the orchestra delivered a gripping Shostakovich Tenth. Even though it is described as a portrait of Stalin and the composer’s liberation from his grip, Abrams, in his introductory remarks, noted the symphony’s enigmatic quality, stating that no one really knows what it means.

The first movement — with its foreboding opening statement, terrifying outbursts, and transitions to the tenderest of passages — was totally captivating. The rollicking second movement threatened to veer out of control, which made it wildly exciting. The third was energized with forlorn horn calls and terrific playing by the woodwinds. The fourth propelled unrelentingly from anguish to celebration, blazing into a triumphant finale.

Abrams displayed an emphatic whirlwind of gestures throughout the performance. If his baton had hit the music stand, it would have been sliced in half. With a precise beat, the conductor elicited from the orchestra an electrifying performance and ecstatic applause from the audience. Abrams warmly acknowledged the fine contributions from the musicians, but the final time he walked to the podium, the orchestra stayed seated and added their foot-stomping praise to the commotion so that he would get all of the acclaim. It was well deserved.